Save the date: A2IM Indie Week Panel with @musictechpolicy on the Impact on Indie Labels of Unfreezing Mechanicals

If you are coming to Indie Week, Trichordist readers might enjoy a panel Chris Castle is on to discuss the impact on indie labels of the Great Unfreeze! 

Entitled How the CRB’s Rejection of Frozen Mechanicals Will Affect Your Label?, the panel goes off at 10:30 am ET on Wednesday, June 15 at the New York Law School.

Speakers are Victor Zaraya: Concord (Moderator), Danielle Aguirre: NMPA (National Music Publishers’ Association), Glen Barros: Exceleration, and Chris.

If you want to read up on the issues that caused the Copyright Royalty Board to reject the failed settlement, here’s some background:

Copyright Royalty Board’s Rejection of NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Warner, Universal settlement

Copyright Royalty Board’s Reaction to Second Settlement Proposal by NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Warner and Universal

Survey Results from Songwriter Survey on Frozen Mechanicals

Comments:

Rosanne Cash

Helienne Lindvall, David Lowery, Blake Morgan

David Poe

Abby North, Erin McAnally, Chelsea Crowell

Kevin Casini

NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Warner, Universal Comment with Copy of MOU4

Chris will post about the panel afterward.

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers To the Right: When Will the MLC Show Us the Money?

If you’ve received one of these emails from the MLC about having to recast their monthly statement inside of a single month, when you’re eying that $500,000,000 of supposedly unmatched money that’s sitting in the MLC, Inc.’s bank account (maybe?), or if you’re trying to figure out when they are launching the vastly overdue claiming portal, you’re probably wondering–who’s in the clown car today? Bozo or Pennywise?

But maybe they’re smarter than they look. Because all they have to do to distribute that $500,000,000 on a market share basis is keep you looking at the bright and shiny object while they run out the clock.

And if you’re waiting for the Copyright Office to save you because they have “oversight”, you’re going to be waiting for a long time. Here’s the reality–nobody is minding the store. There’s a difference between “oversight” and “overwatch.” In Washington, “oversight” means finding someone else to blame and from the very beginning it has been clear who the MLC intends to blame–you. Because you didn’t “play your part” or sufficiently “connect to collect”.

The Copyright Office has done a couple things while under the supervision of the current head lobbyist for Spotify. They’re good at studies, terrible at oversight, so let’s give credit where it’s due. But also realize that’s where it stops because they have about as much moxie as a starfish. (And if you think the NMPA is going to save you, take a look at the frozen mechanicals debacle and ask yourself if a rational person could really take that seriously.)

At the core of the MLC’s business model is the ability to match. Matching is kind of a “See Spot run” building block. If you can’t match, it’s very close to saying you can’t count. Because it depends on what the definition of “match” is.

So what is a match? Or as the Bard might say, how can I screw thee? Let me count the ways. The Copyright Office produced the Unclaimed Royalties Best Practices study partly on this very topic. Notice the difference between “best practices” and “rules.” “Best practices” is not the same as “rule”. If you violate a best practice, nothing happens to you, so therefore perfect for Washington. If you violate a rule, bad things happen to you. The connective tissue is enforcement. If you violate a rule at the Securities and Exchange Commission, you wear stripes. If you violate a rule at the Environmental Protection Agency, you will pay a fine, for sure. If you violate a rule at the MLC? There really aren’t any so it can’t happen. In other words, it’s just like the Harry Fox Agency.

But that’s what we have so let’s look at one passage in particular from the Best Practice Study because that’s the closest we have to a rule book.

The Office recommends that the MLC make all [matching] metrics publicly available, except to the extent it would cause confidential or business sensitive information to be improperly disclosed. [God forbid.] Specifically regarding match rates, the Office acknowledges the MLC’s point that “vendors can easily increase their claimed ‘match percentage’ by simply dropping the confidence level at which they call something a match.” For that reason, the Office recommends that the MLC provide appropriate context for its metrics, including information surrounding how it defines a match, relevant confidence levels, and how confidence levels are tuned. Additionally, so that they are clear and precise, and to avoid possible confusion, the Office recommends that all royalty figures be provided both with and without accrued interest. [How about a best practice of how they are practicing complying with best practices best?

The Office recommends that in addition to providing annual statistics in its annual report, the MLC also have a dedicated public webpage displaying all of these metrics in a clear, well-organized, user-friendly, and accessible manner. The webpage should be interactive and allow users to search, sort, and break down the data so it may be more easily reviewed and analyzed. The webpage should also have an export or download feature, including bulk exporting/downloading, to aid public consumption and dissemination. The Office recommends that the webpage be updated monthly after each batch of new reports of usage arrive and go through initial matching processes. All metrics should be retained and made available online indefinitely (though the MLC could distinguish between current and historic metrics in the future) so long-term trends can be assessed and to ensure the public and the Office have access to them in connection with the review of the MLC’s designation every five years. The MLC should also be very clear about how applicable metrics may change in response to DMP reporting adjustments and the reconciliation of any related royalty underpayments or overpayments permitted by the Office’s regulations. Relatedly, the Office also recommends that the MLC make publicly available relevant metrics about DMP reported usage that the MLC determines is not subject to blanket licenses (e.g., where it is subject to a voluntary license instead, public domain musical works, etc.), such that any related paid royalties have been credited or refunded back to the DMP.

What would also be nice is to tell you how much of your money they are holding and how you get it back. Maybe they could practice the best out of that.

There’s nothing particularly insightful about any of that, right? It’s the kind of thing that any songwriter giving the subject a moment or two of thought could have figured out at any point in the last 100 years. It’s also the kind of thing that you would have expected to have been built into the MLC’s system–which is essentially the HFA system–from the beginning.

It doesn’t matter what they say they aspire to do. Naturally they have to say they aspire to get it 100% correct–because otherwise that raises some interesting questions about intent, right?

Will they ever be called to account for their failures? Doubtful. The only business in the world where you can get the government to let you hold $500,000,000 of other people’s money and then keep it because paying it out was just too hard for you.

Do you think this mess is what Congress had in mind after they were fed a bunch of crap by the know-nothing lobbyists?

So let’s ask again–Bozo or Pennywise?

A new proposal for songwriters in the Imperial City

[This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

By Chris Castle

As MTP readers will recall, the National Music Publishers Association and the Nashville Songwriters Association International purported to agree on behalf of a “consensus” that never seemed to materialize to extend the long-frozen 9.1¢ mechanical rate for physical and downloads in the form of a settlement agreement in the Copyright Royalty Board’s Phonorecords IV proceeding.  I thought this deal reeked and so did a number of other people, including the Copyright Royalty Board itself which rejected the settlement.

To their great credit, Sony, Universal and Warner stepped up and agreed to offer all the world’s songwriters increased rates of 12¢ plus inflation indexing for the next five years which they didn’t have to do (and was a deal that the CRB hinted that they would find acceptable when they resoundingly rejected the first settlement).  Assuming the Copyright Royalty Board accepts the deal—a step you might miss out from the press coverage–this had the effect of a quick end to a process the labels had every right to litigate at the CRB.

The other benefit to the settlement is that it should—if it doesn’t get screwed up again—it should take away a major argument that the digital retailers are using against songwriters in the streaming part of the Phonorecords IV proceeding.  That argument is the most obvious negotiating tactic in the world:  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  The services are essentially saying that if the rates should be frozen when the labels are paying the mechanical (which they are on physical and downloads), then the rates should be frozen when the services are paying the mechanical (which the services are on streaming).  And no inflation adjustment. Well, no kidding.

In one power move, the labels did something fair for songwriters and incidentally also helped publishers in spite of themselves by taking away a major argument from the digital retailers.  Rather than play a schoolyard game of high/low bargaining and stretching out the process for another couple years, the labels cut to the chase and closed. Hopefully the CRB will agree (again, don’t forget that the CRB still has to approve the proposed deal.)

Do we still have bones to pick with the labels?  Absolutely.  Could the rate have been even more fair?  Sure.  Might it have been if the publishers had actually done their job and negotiated in the first place?  Maybe.  Probably.  But they didn’t so we’ll never know.  However, credit where credit’s due, the labels pulled this one out and saved the publishers’ bacon in spite of themselves.

I do have to note in passing that when you read the press coverage on the filing of the settlement, there’s not one US group with a press release today that actually picked up a pen and filed a comment at the CRB when they were needed and duty called.  The awesome UK songwriter group Ivors Academy stepped up and bled with songwriters like Rosanne Cash, George Johnson, Helienne Lindvall, David Lowery and Blake Morgan and all the other commenters who took one for the team when it was unpopular to do so. And as that guy said, he who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.

You’ll hear a lot of hoorah about how streaming is what’s important from people who are trying to CYA today.  Here’s a hot tip:  IT’S ALL IMPORTANT IF IT’S YOUR MONEY.  Why is that so hard to understand?

Which is why going forward all songwriters and all publishers need to be involved with the rate-setting proceedings at CRB including on streaming.  The CRB knows this and acknowledges.  I think the labels know this on their side.

The question is whether the publishers do.  The announcement of this settlement proposal is both inauspicious and true to form.  Remember—they had practically nothing to do with making the deal they celebrate today.  But don’t let that stop anyone.

We need fairness at the Copyright Royalty Board.  Notice I’m not using the word “transparency” which means whatever the speaker wants it to mean.  I’m very specifically talking about a seat at the table not just for songwriters, but for independent labels and publishers as well as the majors.  As Ann Richards used to say, if you’re not at the table you are on the menu, and this was a very, very close run thing in Phonorecords IV. 

If it weren’t for all the people who commented negatively and resisted the rates that had been bootstrapped in the past and would have been again, I don’t know where songwriters would be today. You gave the Judges the truth, straight from the heart and they responded. So thank you, all of you. And thank you to the readers of MTP and The Trichordist who raised hell right along side. It’s a good day for everyone.

Remember–keep coming back because it works if you work it.

Guest Post by @georgejohnson: The only songwriter in Phonorecords IV speaks his mind

[You may have never heard of George Johnson, but you should have. He’s the only songwriter in the Phonorecords III and IV rate proceedings at the Copyright Royalty Board, representing himself. It’s also important to understand that if George wasn’t carrying the flag as a “participant” in the proceedings, it’s unlikely that the Copyright Royalty Judges would have rejected the bizarre “settlement” proposed by the major labels and publishers paving the way for the second proposed settlement announced today that raises the mechanical rate to 12¢. George asked us to post a short comment on today’s settlement.]

Unfortunately, as glad as I am to see the labels finally offer a slightly better rate of 12 cents, the Judges have not even ruled on the last unreasonable settlement that they rejected, nor had time to hear a back from the Register on the Novel Question of Law proposed by the 3 Major Record Labels. Therefore, it would be premature for me to agree to any rushed deal before first hearing the Register‘s and the Judges’ rulings of law on this issue, and the many other problems the Judges pointed out with these extremely flawed settlements.

Furthermore, the multiple conflicts of interest, self dealing, vertical integration “warning flags”, side deals, and other problems may still need to be resolved by the Judges before any new settlement can be approved.

NMPA CEO David Israelite even stated in 2015 that the rate should be 50 cents, yet he continues to fight me to keep the rate frozen and below market, despite now being forced to offer 12 cents to the Judges which he absolutely did not want to do and fought every step of the way. He is no songwriter advocate whatsoever. He also makes $2 million dollars a year in salary and extra compensation to keep songwriters frozen at 9.1 cents all these years because he really works for the parent record labels, not their vertically integrated publishing division as he claims. It’s a total waste of time for songwriters and I hope Congress puts a stop to this self-dealing and increasing antitrust issues created by these two-timing lobbyists’ behavior.

Btw, when the rate is accurately calculated for inflation since 2006 it’s actually 13 cents, not 12 cents like they offered, but it’s still way below market considering the rate was 2 cents in 1909.  A rate based on today’s marketplace reality would place the rate at a break-even point of 58 cents per song to make up for 89 ignored years of zero inflation adjustments for songwriters, who are entitled to a raise, much less a simple cost of living adjustment for 2022 real world prices. Plus there is no legal difference between adjusting from 2006 or 1909.  NMPA, NSAI, and RIAA just don’t want to increase the profits for their own songwriters, much less all their competitors who have to have their rates frozen by NMPA, NSAI, and the RIAA, which is extraordinary and must end.

There is also the issue of the free unlimited “limited download” loophole which must be paid a mechanical and, of course, the labels completely ignored this core issue which goes hand in hand with a properly adjusted 58 cent inflation royalty rate which all songwriters and publishers deserve now.  Apple and the other Services need to reduce their 30% per dollar fee on downloads to help share in the cost of the Judges’ ruling of no more static rates for songwriters.  If the labels offer a reasonable rate and fix their self dealing conflicts and side deals, along with a paid mechanical for limited downloads, then I would sign a deal like that. Plus, the labels refuse to address the issue of old controlled composition clauses at 75% of the lawful statutory rate or any new controlled composition clauses to reduce any new agreed increases.

Keeping the Songwriter Survey Open!!

Thanks for the HUGE response to the songwriter survey on what you think the new unfrozen mechanical rate should be!! The response has been so strong we’re going to keep the survey open so more of you can participate.

This Survey Monkey questionnaire is anonymous and easy to take–3 minutes to complete–and you could really help a lot by giving your opinions on what you think the rate should be! We will post the results so everyone can see.

You can start the survey at this link. Thank you!

Please take our physical and download mechanical royalty rates survey and help decide the new rates!

We are participating in a survey being conducted by a number of songwriter groups around the world to ask our readers what you think the new un-frozen mechanical royalty rate should be since the Copyright Royalty Judges rejected the settlement that would have extended the 9.1¢ freeze. Trichordist readers have heard a lot about the frozen mechanicals but after the Judges rejected extending the freeze we have moved on now to a new phase–if the rate isn’t 9.1¢ anymore, what should it be?

This Survey Monkey questionnaire is anonymous and easy to take–3 minutes to complete–and you could really help a lot by giving your opinions on what you think the rate should be! We will post the results so everyone can see.

You can start the survey at this link. Thank you!

Is @UMG coming to the party on unfrozen mechanicals?

By Chris Castle

[This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

I have it on good authority from someone close to the talks not authorized to speak on the record that Universal is taking the lead on solving the now un-frozen mechanicals crisis. This obviously needs to be confirmed and may not be final, but I think it’s well worth posting about.

Recall that the crisis pertains to the so-called “Subpart B” mechanical royalties paid by record companies for permanent downloads, vinyl and compact discs. The mechanical rate has been frozen at 9.1¢ since 2008 and the Copyright Royalty Judges recently rejected a settlement among the NMPA, NSAI, Sony, Universal and Warner to extend the freeze in the Phonorecords IV proceeding. Having rejected the proposed settlement, the next step could be knock down, drop dead, drag out litigation that would, in my view, be totally unnecessary. Or the next step could be the labels and publishers submitting a new proposed settlement and asking for the Judges’ approval. 

Also recall that the Judges hinted at a potential deal they would like to see in their rejection of the proposed settlement that would essentially uplift the current 9.1¢ rate by an inflation factor since the rate was set in 2008, bringing the minimum statutory rate for all “Subpart B” configurations to 12¢ that would be further uplifted by an annual cost of living adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U in this case).

We’ve written about this topic so much that you’re probably sick of hearing about it–but if this source turns out to be correct, it’s a real step in the right direction by Universal taking a leadership role that will no doubt be controversial.

As I understand it, Universal may propose a minimum statutory rate of 10¢ for permanent downloads and 12¢ for both vinyl and CD configurations. All three rates would be adjusted annually by the Consumer Price Index (in a similar way that the Judges just indexed the webcasting royalty in Webcasting V applicable to sound recordings). This rate would apply to all songs–not just to George Johnson–as one would expect.

There’s no way to know at this point today whether all the participants in the Phonorecords IV proceeding will accept these terms, including George Johnson who has held out for a much higher minimum statutory rate. Some may scratch their head over why the download rate is less, but my suspicion is that it’s because Apple and Amazon have been inflexible on increasing the wholesale price and I could understand why a label would give themselves some headroom on downloads going into what will surely be highly inflationary times but at the same time agreeing a cost of living adjustment. (When the dust settles, it may be worth a discussion in the artist rights community about whether to campaign against Apple and Amazon.)

I do think it’s commendable if Universal is taking the first step toward bringing fairness to a process that has been unfair for many years. We’ll see what happens, but it looks like it could be light at the end of the tunnel. Watch this space.

The Effect of Unfrozen Mechanicals on Controlled Compositions

[A “controlled compositions clause” explainer for artists and songwriters by Chris Castle on MusicTech.Solutions]

Nice post by Ed Christman in Billboard explaining the continuing crisis on frozen mechanicals. Ed comes up with a rough justice quantification of the impact on songwriter and music publisher revenues in light of controlled compositions clauses in recording contracts that apply to (a) songs written and recorded by artists, or (b) songs by “outside writers” if and only if the artist can get the outside writer to accept the controlled compositions terms and rates.

For those reading along at home, one theory (aside from sheer leverage) that gets used in this context is that the artist/writer can agree on behalf of all co-writers to accept the terms of the license granted by the artist to the label in the controlled compositions clause because they are co-owners of an undivided interest in the song copyright and can grant nonexclusive licenses in the whole subject to a duty to account provided the license is not economic waste or self-dealing. Let’s just leave all that where it lays for now, but that story has never really been properly challenged–particularly the economic waste part given the rate fixing date issue and even the frozen mechanicals crisis itself. We’ll come back to that bit some other time.

The rate fixing date is a key part of the discussion for understanding the impact of unfreezing mechanicals. So what is that rate fixing provision? 

Remember, the controlled compositions clause starts with reducing the minimum statutory mechanical rate in the US (and in theory in Canada subject to MLA) in effect at a point in time. That point in time is either commencement of recording (booo!), delivery, release or sale of a unit embodying the song at issue. Remember that the labels only pay mechanical royalties on physical and downloads (the rates at issue in the frozen mechanicals crisis)–streaming services pay for the interactive streaming mechanicals (and there is no mechanical for webcasting, a whole other beef).

You say, wait–isn’t the mechanical rate 9.1¢? Why does it matter when the record was recorded, delivered, released or sold? Won’t the rates all be the same? And you’d be right if you were asking about a record recorded and released in 2006 or after, or a record recorded and released between 1909 and 1978, like, say some titles by Bob Dylan, The Beatles, Otis Redding or Miles Davis. 

But–it wasn’t always this way. The mechanical royalty rate was set at 2¢ by Congress with the first statutory license, i.e., compulsory license, in 1909 and did not change until the 1976 revision of the US Copyright Act effective 1978. The rate then began to incrementally increase over the years until it reached 9.1¢ in 2006, a phased increase that was to compensate for Congress failing to increase the rate for 70 years, aka “the Ice Age”. The Congress really screwed up songwriters’ lives by freezing the rate at 2¢ during the Ice Age and songwriters and their heirs have been paying for it ever since, right up to the 2006-2022 period, aka “the Second Ice Age” or the Return of the Neanderthals. 

In an effort to help songwriters shovel out from the Ice Age, The Congress also authorized indexing the minimum rate to inflation from 1988 to 1995. Indexing is again on the mind of the Copyright Royalty Board right now–bearing in mind that an increase in rates due to inflation has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the song copyrights so there’s no confusion. Indexing simply applies any increase in the consumer price index to the statutory rate and preserves buying power. In a way, it is the opposite of a case about value. Indexing assumes that the value issue was already decided (in this case in 2006) and simply preserves buying power so that the “nominal” rate of 9.1¢ in 2006 can still buy the same amount of goods or services in 2022 (or 2023 in the case of the CRB rate period). Otherwise the “real” rate, i.e., the inflation adjusted rate, is not 9.1¢ it is about 6¢.

Remember–the proposed rate increase to 12¢ by the CRB is not about value, it’s about buying power because it’s solely focused on inflation.

So back to controlled compositions. It is no coincidence that at the same time as the 1978 increases were phased in, the labels established controlled compositions clauses that knocked songwriters back down. They would probably not have gotten away with freezing by contract at 2¢ so they let the rate float up but much more slowly and with several caps. The first cap is the maximum number of songs, usually 10 or 11. The next cap is the infamous 3/4 rate, where the label pays based on 75% of the minimum statutory rate. But the third cap is the rate fixing date and that’s the one we want to focus on in the unfrozen mechanicals context.

In simple form, it looks something like this contract language:

If the copyright law of the United States provides for a minimum compulsory rate: The rate equal to seventy-five percent (75%) of the minimum compulsory license rate applicable to the use of musical compositions on audio Records under the United States copyright law (hereinafter referred to as the “U.S. Minimum Statutory Rate”) at the time of the commencement of the recording of the Master concerned but in no event later than the last date for timely Delivery of such Master (the applicable date is hereinafter referred to as the “Copyright Fixing Date”). (The U.S. Minimum Statutory Rate is $.091 per Composition as of January 1, 2006); 

The way that the statutory rate increases come into the controlled compositions clause is because from 1978-2006 the statutory rates increased across albums delivered across album cycles. If you consider that the rates used to increase about every two years and that an album cycle can be two years, it’s likely that LP 1 would have a lower rate than LP2, LP 2 than LP3 and so on right up to 2006.

Also remember that the increases in rates are prospective, meaning that the controlled compositions rate on recordings delivered in the future will, of course, get the higher rate, even if the past rates don’t change which they don’t, at least not yet. Also consider that permanent downloads often are excluded from controlled comp treatment and are paid at full rate, probably on the rate fixing date in the artist’s agreement. Sometimes the download rates “float” or increase in line with increases in the statutory rate, but that’s part of individual negotiations.

If there is an outside songwriter who does not agree to accept the artist’s controlled composition rate (and there are plenty of these) what happens? Typically the label will account to the outside writer at their full minimum statutory rate but will deduct that payment from the maximum aggregate mechanical royalty payable to the artist (i.e., the 10 song cap). There’s some twists and turns to this involving rates on different units “made and distributed”, but for our purposes there is one clear thing to understand:

Because of the rate fixing date which is frozen by contract (the Mini Ice Age) the artist/songwriter will be paying a higher mechanical to the outside writer from a frozen royalty “pool”. 

This is why you should always, always demand “protection” for at least one outside song in your contract and then review each album to determine if that needs to be increased. This is particularly true for records made in places like Nashville where the record company will demand you work with “A” list songwriters (assume none of whom will take 3/4 rate) and then try to deduct the difference between the uncontrolled rate and the controlled rate from you (and if it gets big enough, cross it to your record royalties). (Not only will A list writers not take the 3/4 rate, they’re pissed because they can’t charge you double stat like they do double scale for sessions.)

Example: You have a 10 x 3/4 rate cap on mechanicals, the “cap rate”. That’s the 68.25¢ album rate you hear about (10 x .75 x 9.1¢). Say you have 10 songs on your album and you wrote all of them. You get the entire 68.25¢. If you had two outside songs whose writers get 9.1¢ under current rates, you deduct 18.2¢ from the cap rate, and that leaves 50.05¢ as the “controlled pool” or the total mechanical royalty payable to the artist/songwriter (actually all controlled writers, but leave aside that wrinkle).

So you can see, that’s no longer a 75% rate, it’s actually more like a 55% rate.

Now let’s assume that the new rate is 12¢. Same calculation, two outside songs now get 24¢, but the cap rate stays the same because of the rate fixing date. During the Mini Ice Age, i.e., while that cap rate is fixed at 9.1¢ x 10 x .75, the controlled pool now is expressed as 68.25¢ – 24¢ = 44.25¢, or about 48% (44.25 ÷ 91). The artist’s publisher is not going to be wild about that; the outside writer’s publishers will be thrilled.

This will start to true up on the next LP that takes a rate fixing date after the 12¢ rates go into effect. In that situation you’d be increasing both sides of the equation, so the cap rate would increase to 90¢ (10 x .12 x .75). The outside writers still get 12¢ each for two songs (or 24¢) which is deducted from the cap rate to get a controlled pool of 66¢. The true controlled comp rate is then back to about 55%.

These effects will be less pronounced if you have protection for one or more songs (or fractions of songs) or you have a higher cap, say 11 or 12 instead of 10 (with corresponding increases on other configurations). But you see the trend line.

I think this leads to the conclusion that increasing the statutory rate is a huge step forward and we should all be grateful to the Judges. The rate fixing dates for catalog titles (really the entire rate fixing date concept) must also be considered and any new effort to tweak the controlled compositions clause to effectively nullify the Judges’ rate increase will no doubt cause further conflict.

One day Congress will again act to reduce the effects of the controlled compositions clause and especially the rate fixing date, but in the meantime the Judges may well visit the issue to the extent they are able before we see the Return of the Neanderthals.

Unfrozen: What will the new physical mechanical rates do to or do for valuations? — Music Tech Solutions

There are some decades in which nothing happens and some weeks in which decades happen. This was one of those weeks. You no doubt have seen that the Copyright Royalty Judges offered a breath of fresh air in the contentious and labyrinthine Phonorecords III and IV proceedings by refusing to accept the insider “settlement”…but if mechanical royalties have been understated, what does it mean for catalog valuations in the past and in the future? Looking at you, Bob Dylan!

Unfrozen: What will the new physical mechanical rates do to or do for valuations? — Music Tech Solutions

Frozen Mechanicals Crisis: Twelve Songwriter Groups Reject Majors Position that Copyright Royalty Board MUST Ignore Songwriter Objections

Second Comments Submitted by the Songwriters Guild of America, Inc.,  the Society of Composers & Lyricists, Music Creators North America, and the individual music creators Rick Carnes and Ashley Irwin

These Comments Are Endorsed by the Following Music Creator Organizations:

Alliance for Women Film Composers (AWFC). https://theawfc.com

Alliance of Latin American Composers & Authors (AlcaMusica) https://www.alcamusica.org

Asia-Pacific Music Creators Alliance (APMA), https://musiccreatorsap.org/

European Composers and Songwriters Alliance (ECSA), https://composeralliance.org

The Ivors Academy (IVORS), https://ivorsacademy.com

Music Answers (M.A.), https://www.musicanswers.org

Pan-African Composers and Songwriters Alliance (PACSA), http://www.pacsa.org

Screen Composers Guild of Canada (SCGC), https://screencomposers.ca

Songwriters Association of Canada (SAC), http://www.songwriters.ca


Discussion

  1.  The Statutory Importance of Interested, Non-Participant Comments to CRB Decision Making

While Congress may have expressed enthusiasm for joint rate setting proposals being developed through arms-length, independent negotiations among the parties to a CRB rate-setting proceeding (which clearly may not have been what transpired in the present case among vertically integrated parties),[1] Congress was also crystal clear in another of its related statutory directives.  Namely, that the CRB also has a duty to ensure that interested, non-participating parties who would be bound by the terms of the negotiated agreement are given the full opportunity to comment upon the proposal as part of the record of the proceeding prior to the proposal’s adoption or rejection by the CRB. 

Section 801(b)(7)(a)(i) of the US Copyright Act stipulates that:

[T]he Copyright Royalty Judges shall [1] provide to those that would be bound by the terms, rates, or other determination set by any agreement in a proceeding to determine royalty rates an opportunity to comment on the agreement and shall [2] provide to participants in the proceeding under § 803(b)(2) that would be bound by the terms, rates, or other determination set by the agreement an opportunity to comment on the agreement and object to its adoption as a basis for statutory terms and rates.  (Bracketed numbers added for clarity)

More importantly for the purposes of these Comments, Section 801(b)(7)(a)(ii) explicitly sets forth the authority of the CRB to accept or reject the proposed agreements of parties to a proceeding based upon the combination of comments and objections filed both by participants in the proceeding and outside, interested party commenters:

[T]he Copyright Royalty Judges may decline to adopt the agreement as a basis for statutory terms and rates for participants that are not parties to the agreement, if any participant described in clause (i) objects to the agreement and the Copyright Royalty Judges conclude, based on the record before them if one exists, that the agreement does not provide a reasonable basis for setting statutory terms or rates. (emphasis added)

In the present case, the Major Music Conglomerates (once again counterintuitively joined by NSAI) have chosen to simply ignore the statutory requirements, set forth above, and focus solely on issuing a blanket rejection of the comments of pro se participant George Johnson (who formally objected to the proposed agreement).  In fact, in their submission to the CRB of August 10, 2021,[2] the Major Music Conglomerates did not even bother to mention the detailed comments of those many individuals and groups who, on behalf of their constituents comprising a large percentage of the US’ and the world’s music creators, filed detailed comments with the CRB objecting to the proposed frozen mechanical rate deal as unreasonable.  

Rather, the Conglomerates opted instead to stand solely on the following, naked assertion:

Mr. Johnson provides no basis for the Judges to reject the Settlement. Mr. Johnson makes unfounded accusations of fraud and inaccurate statements concerning the corporate structure of record companies, but provides no economic reason to believe that the rates in the Settlement are outside the “zone of reasonableness.” This is nothing more than a rehash of arguments he made and the Judges rejected when a similar settlement was presented in Phonorecords III….

Objections to a settlement that is substantially the same as the one adopted in Phonorecords III, absent a showing of changed market conditions that would support a change in the rates and terms for Subpart B configurations at this time, do not permit the Judges to “conclude that the agreement reached voluntarily between the Settling Parties does not provide a reasonable basis for setting statutory terms and rates.” (citation omitted). Thus, as in Phonorecords III, “the Judges must adopt the proposed regulations that codify the partial settlement.”[3] (emphasis added).

This evasive and misleading statement is counter-productive to upholding the Congressional mandate that all interested parties be heard –even those unable to afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars required to participate effectively in the formal rate-setting proceedings. 

To repeat the obvious, when they filed the above comments, the Major Music Conglomerates were fully aware that Mr. Johnson was by far not the only person or entity to have filed detailed objections with the CRB to the frozen mechanical proposal, including the extensive comments of the Independent Music Creator groups who are the signatories hereto that had been submitted some two weeks prior to the filing of the Major Music Conglomerates’ comments on August 10, 2021 and reported on and published in the press.[4] 

Specifically, some two dozen other organizations and individuals filed or endorsed comments[5] detailing with great specificity the unreasonable nature of the frozen royalty rate proposal made by the Major Music Conglomerates, owing to drastically changed market conditions that include the damage of long-term and now accelerating inflation, the growing length in time of the current freeze, and the demonstrably re-emerging physical phonorecord, download/Non-Fungible Token (NFT) markets amounting to tens of millions of dollars in annual royalty revenue for music creators.  Those issues were spelled out extensively in our own Comments of July 26, 2021, and later updated in our Letter of October 20, 2021. 

There is little mystery why the Major Music Conglomerates would choose not to acknowledge the existence of these many music creator dissenters, or to comment on what those dissenters had to say.  As the CRB itself noted presciently in its Phonorecords III determination, “NMPA and NSAI represent individual songwriters and publishers.”  For them to “engage in anti-competitive price-fixing at below-market rates,” would be against the interests of their potential constituents, who would likely “seek representation elsewhere” if they were so concerned.[6]  

In the current instance, the Major Music Conglomerates seem to be actively seeking to obfuscate the fact that this result, for whatever reason, is exactly what has transpired.  The multiple sets of comments received by the CRB from US and global music creator advocacy groups bluntly criticizing the frozen royalty rate proposal signify the raising of voices of those representing a vast portion of the world’s music creators against the proposal’s obvious inadvisability and irrationality.  The isolated support for the proposal by NSAI, an organization that represents only a tiny sliver of US songwriters and composers principally from a single genre and local geographic area (and whose underwritten presence in the proceeding raises significant questions about whether it can truly represent any collection of songwriters and composers – let alone the actual, diverse universe whose rights and livelihoods are presently at stake), has been drowned out by hundreds of thousands of other music creators arguing substantively through their organizational representatives against the thoroughly unreasonable nature of extending frozen rates for another five-year period. 

Thus is the specious nature of the Major Music Conglomerates’ central claim –that the CRB has neither the authority nor sufficient reason to reject the proposed mechanical rate freeze as unreasonable– demonstrated.  Fulfilling all statutory requirements, a participant in the proceedings (George Johnson) has objected to the privately negotiated deal concocted by the vertically integrated Conglomerates.  Further, numerous interested commentators who “would be bound by the terms, rates, or other determination set by the agreement” have joined with Johnson in providing to the CRB amply detailed comments demonstrating significant, multiple changes in circumstances that make the proposed agreement unreasonable and irrationally flawed in 2021. 

Under such circumstances, the CRB would be well within the scope of its statutory authority to either “decline to adopt the agreement as a basis for statutory terms and rates for participants that are not parties to the agreement,” or to reject it altogether.  We prefer the latter, but respectfully suggest that it should most certainly do one or the other.

Moreover, the assertion by the Major Music Conglomerates that the CRB lacks sufficient reason or authority to review the Memorandum of Understanding (“MOU”)[7] negotiated and agreed upon concurrently with the Frozen Rate Proposal for its effect on that rate proposal, is equally without merit.  In their submission of August 10, 2021, the Conglomerates go so far as to claim that they “did not present the MOU to the Judges because they viewed it as routine, and irrelevant to the Judges’ decision-making concerning the Settlement.”  To put it mildly, the Songwriter and Composer community views this statement with uneasiness as it pertains to the general issues of fairness and transparency in the Phonorecord IV proceeding, and hopes the CRB shares our concerns.

It suffices to say that two agreements –negotiated side by side with one another at the same time by the same parties regarding details of the same general matter—inarguably stand a substantial chance of being inter-related through both their content and potential quid pro quos.   We therefore believe it obvious that in evaluating the fairness and reasonableness of one, the terms and scope of the other should be considered as a matter of course for reasons of both best practices and common sense. 


[1] As stated in our Comments of July 26, 2021, it is by no means clear that the “negotiations” which took place among the vertically integrated participants in developing the frozen mechanical royalty rate proposal were at arm’s length.  “The circumstances under which the settlement negotiations were conducted that produced the proposed royalty rate freeze set forth in the May 25 Motion to Adopt can be fairly characterized  –under the above standards– as being exactly the opposite of what both Congress and the Executive Branch have in mind in defining “reasonability” under the “willing seller-willing buyer” formula.  Rather than arm’s length negotiations between parties on opposites sides of the table, the referenced discussions that produced the settlement agreement instead seem to have taken place solely among vertically integrated parties and their trade association agents, apparently with little or no input from independent music creators and copyright owners[1] upon whom “those rates and terms [will be] binding.”  See, Comments of July 26, 2021 at 8-9.  

[2]  https://app.crb.gov/document/download/25577

[3] https://app.crb.gov/document/download/25577 at 4-5.

[4] See, e.g., https://thetrichordist.com/2021/07/27/frozen-mechanicals-crisis-davidpoemusics-comment-to-the-copyright-royalty-board/ and https://thetrichordist.com/category/frozen-mechanicals/.

[5] See, https://app.crb.gov/case/detail/21-CRB-0001-PR%20%282023-2027%29 for comments filed between dates July 19 and August 2, 2021.

[6] Phonorecords III at 15298.

[7] According to the Major Music Conglomerates: “Specifically, this memorandum of understanding (“MOU”) provides for (1) participating record companies and music publishers to work collaboratively on licensing processes to improve clearance of new releases, (2) a procedure for bulk distribution of mechanical royalties accrued by participating record companies that are not otherwise payable, and (3) late fee waivers when participating record companies follow specified clearance procedures for new releases.” See, https://app.crb.gov/document/download/25577 at 6.

[Read the entire comment here]