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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
It was a big week for songwriters last week! The Copyright Royalty Judges rejected the frozen mechanicals settlement put forward by the majors in the current rate-setting proceeding at the Copyright Royalty Board thanks in part to the best audience in the world–that would be you! All that hammering on the issue paid off.
We also acknowledge the hard work of all the commenters who spoke straight from the heart and of course songwriter George Johnson who has been fighting the good fight in the Copyright Royalty Board all by himself for years now. We’re also very grateful to the Judges for a well-thought out ruling and a thorough vetting of the issues, George’s many filings and the songwriter public comments.
The question we’ve heard a lot in recent days is where do we go from here? Clearly the answer is “Up” but how far up is the question. We need to be mindful of the economic impact that increased rates will have on independent labels in particular, but at the same time acknowledge that all record companies have gotten the benefit of frozen rates for 16 years and that songwriters have taken it in the shorts for a long, long time.
The Judges seem to be hinting at a deal in their ruling (remembering this is the rate for physical and downloads only (called “Subpart B rates”) and not for Spotify-type streaming which is not affected by these rate changes). Here’s the relevant quote from the ruling:
Commenters advocated application of an inflation adjustment beginning, at a minimum, in 2006. See, e.g. [Songwriters Guild of America] Comments at 4; [Monica] Corton Comments at 4; [Kevin] Casini Comments at 4. According to the proponents of a cost of living adjustment (COLA) applied to the 2006 rates, that adjustment would yield a 2021 royalty rate of $ 0.12 (an upward 31.9% inflation adjustment over the sixteen-year period). See, e.g., SGA Comments at 4. SGA conceded that the COLA extrapolation cannot be considered dispositive on the issue of new rate-setting, but they contended that it does “starkly demonstrate the outrageous unfairness that has been imposed on the music creator community over a period of more than an entire century.”
Step one, then, could be to increase the minimum statutory rate to 12¢ (or 13¢ depending on how you do the math) with customary adjustments for the “long song” formula for songs over 5 minutes.
That increase in the rate would be significant and probably the biggest rate increase ever on a percentage basis for the statutory rate. Will that satisfy everyone? Probably not, but it’s a step forward.
But–and this is a big but–that’s not the end of the story. We do not want to be right back in the same position in a few years time. One way to avoid this is to increase the new rate for inflation every 12 months (called “indexing”) the same way that the webcasting rates are indexed for sound recordings.
The Judges also hint at indexing as a potential solution to avoid just another rate freeze:
[George Johnson] has long advocated inclusion of an inflation index in royalty rates set by the Judges, including the…rates at issue here. In support of his advocacy, GEO has filed 27 pleadings, including motions seeking imposition of an inflation index on section 115 rates and periodic notices of U.S. inflation rates. His plea is bolstered by the many commenters who, almost unanimously, included this suggestion.
So the way this would work is that starting in 2023, the current 9.1¢ rate would be increased to 12¢. After 12 months, the rate would be increased by the Consumer Price Index (the CPI-U rate) for each 12 month period until 2027 when new rates would get decided by the CRB in the next rate proceeding (Phonorecords V). Example: If the CPI is 10%, then the minimum statutory rate would increase to 13.2¢ for the next 12 months. If the CPI in the second year was also 10%, then the 13.2¢ rate would be increased to 14.52¢ and so on until the last year of the period (2027). (Of course we can’t tell today what the CPI will be in 2023.)
Given the Judge’s rejection of the frozen rates, it is very doubtful that there will ever be another freeze, but we have to stay alert and vocal. When the new rates come up, we all have to pay attention.
It’s important to remember that “indexing” to inflation just preserves buying power. Meaning that 12¢ today is what 9.1¢ was worth in 2006. Would it be the fair thing to index all the way back to 1909? Sure, but while the Judges hint at going back further (the “at a minimum” reference), the Judges may not be inclined to go further back than 2006 when the current freeze started, but we’ll see what happens.
We’d be very interested in hearing from you with any questions you have or other ideas for solutions. Obviously, this post is just sharing ideas with our audience and isn’t a formal statement by any particular person or group. There may be a number of proposals coming out and we’ll of course post them on Trichordist.
It must also be said that George Johnson has yet to weigh in on the situation and may very well have a different idea. There’s also some twists and turns to sort out, such as the black box “MOU” (the fourth of its name) but especially the controlled compositions rates that the Judges discussed in some detail (as Judge Barnett said, “The disparity between the static rate and the dynamic market is even more stark when considering the “controlled composition clause.””).
In any event, feel free to comment and we welcome the discussion.