By Gwendolyn Seale
Remember the $424 million in historical unmatched royalties (also referred to as black box royalties) delivered to the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) by the streaming services last February that songwriters are waiting to receive?
As a refresher, the Music Modernization Act (MMA) required the streaming services to estimate these “historical” black box royalties going back years, and then pay whatever they came up with to the MLC by February 15, 2021. Why did the services pay this “historical” black box? Because songwriters gave them a safe harbor in the MMA to enjoy a limitation of liability from statutory damages for the services’ prior acts of copyright infringement—services like Spotify, which was being sued into oblivion.
Now here’s the jawdropper. What if I told you that Spotify inexplicably reduced its portion of these historical unmatched royalties by nearly $2.3 million?
According to the MLC, on December 20, 2021 Spotify decreased its transfer of historical unmatched royalties by $2,296,820.15. You can find this information by visiting the MLC’s website here: https://www.themlc.com/spotify-usa-inc-spotify. You may wonder why this occurred. Unfortunately, I cannot provide you with any concrete answers, but I do think it is a more than fair question to raise.
Following the February 2021 data dump and transfer of the historical unmatched royalties to the MLC, the streaming services were given until June (in accordance with the regs) to provide the MLC with their second sets of data. According to the MLC’s Interim Annual Report (https://themlc.com/sites/default/files/2021-12/The%20MLC%20Interim%20AR21%20Hi-res%20FINAL.pdf) “[t]his second set of data contained information regarding works for which DSPs had previously paid some, but not all, of the relevant rightsholders for a given work.” The streaming services then had the right over the summer to amend or adjust the royalties and data provided to the MLC.
It is interesting to compare the historical unmatched royalties transferred by each streaming service in February 2021 with the final transfer amounts reported in summer 2021 — and I invite all of you to do the same (https://www.themlc.com/historical-unmatched-royalties ). What you will quickly realize is that the final transfer amounts for every service—other than Spotify, the Harry Fox Agency’s client, either reflected the same totals from the February dump, or, resulted in a higher amount transferred (like in the cases of Amazon, Apple and Google). At least so far.
You may be thinking, how do we know if this nearly $2.3 million reduction is accurate? Frankly, we do not know, and we forced to trust that Spotify is telling the truth. Regrettably, the MMA negotiators did not get (and may not have asked for) an audit right for songwriters or for the MLC with respect to these historical unmatched royalties. (Although it must be said that publishers with direct deals very likely had the right to audit, and possibly those who licensed to Spotify through Spotify’s licensing agent, the Harry Fox Agency, which was simultaneously acting as a licensors’ publishing administrator may have had an audit right. Have a pretzel and the conflicts make more sense).
I recognize I have the benefit of hindsight here — notwithstanding, I find it unfathomable that the MMA dealmakers did not secure an audit right in connection with what was sure to be hundreds of millions of dollars in unmatched royalties.
It is theoretically possible that Spotify overpaid its amount in historical unmatched royalties back in February 2021. Notwithstanding, and feel free to call me a cynic — how am I to believe that for once Spotify actually made an overpayment in royalties?
How can I trust a company which amassed its billions in wealth by stealing musicians’ works, and has continued to supplement its wealth by fighting for the lowest mechanical royalty rates for songwriters ever?
How can I trust a company that unveiled a payola-like feature offering further reduced nanopenny rates to artists in exchange for “promotion?” (see “Discovery Mode”: https://www.rollingstone.com/pro/music-biz-commentary/spotify-payola-artist-rights-alliance-1170544/ ).
How can I trust a company that when faced with reasonable requests about paying musicians fairly, responded with a straight up gaslighting campaign? (see “Loud & Clear” campaign: https://loudandclear.byspotify.com/ )
Remember, this is the company whose executive literally told an independent artist the following in a public forum:
“The problem is this: Spotify was created to solve a problem. The problem was this: piracy and music distribution. The problem was to get artists’ music out there. The problem was not to pay people money.” (See here: https://www.digitalmusicnews.com/2021/06/29/spotify-executive-entitled-pay-penny-per-stream/)
In sum, how can I trust a company that has proven time and time again from its inception that it has never cared about songwriters and artists? Ultimately, I cannot — which makes it utterly difficult for me to trust that Spotify incorrectly overpaid nearly $2.3 million in historical unmatched royalties to the MLC. Granted, if Spotify made misrepresentations here, it could lose its limitation of liability for those past infringements–after years of litigation. But, without the MLC having the right to audit the historical unmatched amounts, determining whether Spotify’s total transfer is correct is essentially futile.
So, if you happen to contact Spotify this week about removing your catalog or canceling your subscription, consider also asking them to provide evidence that they overpaid the MLC $2,296,820.15 in historical unmatched royalties last February. Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll get another Loud & Clear gaslighting campaign to post about!