Guest Post: What Would @TaylorSwift13 and Eddie @cue Do? One solution to the frozen mechanical problem

By Chris Castle [this post first appeared on the MusicTechSolutions blog]

Who can forget how Taylor Swift stood up for songwriters, producers and artists against Apple’s bizarre decision to impose a royalty-free three month trial period on the launch of Apple Music. (Of course, songwriters, producers and artists weren’t the only ones involved, but that’s a story for another day.)

What is equally memorable is how fast Apple changed course and all the goodwill that came to Apple as a result. Faster than you can say “Arsenal”, Eddie Cue announced that Apple would scale it back. Lemonade out of lemons. Of course, the issue should have been obvious, but sometimes smart people miss the point like everyone does sometimes. (Rolling Stone has a good short post on the backstory.)

The point of the story is that when you make a mistake, it’s better to fix it quickly than let it fester. So it is with the “frozen mechanical” problem that has become all the rage in recent days. The good news is the problem can be solved with the payment of money. It won’t be easy, but as a great man once said, this is the business we’ve chosen.

The Copyright Royalty Board decides on the statutory rate that’s paid under compulsory content licenses in the United States. For mechanical royalties, the CRB makes that decision every five years which means that if there isn’t a CRB hearing going on at any given moment, wait a little while and there will be one. (Needless to say, the volume of CRB hearings varies directly with full employment for lawyers and lobbyists in Washington, DC.) The “frozen mechanical” issue dates back to 2006 (or 2009 depending on how you count it) when the CRB allowed the end of rising mechanical royalty rates on physical and permanent downloads (and a couple others). However, the sour memories of frozen mechanicals date to 1909–also a story for another day.

Instead, the CRB has allowed a private agreement among the biggest players to become the law. This has happened at least one other time and it appears that it is about to happen again according to public documents filed with the CRB on March 2, 2021 (read it here). Contrast that private agreement to the bitter struggle against the streaming services over streaming mechanicals that is still in the appeal process. Different people paying, same songwriters getting paid.

If you haven’t heard about the tentative settlement by private agreement at the CRB, it admittedly was not well socialized.

The inescapable problem is that any fixed or “frozen” rate determined at one point in time but paid over relatively long periods of time is at the mercy of inflation in the economy that may rise in that intervening time period. The Congress and the industry recognized this harsh truth in the 1976 revision to the Copyright Act and eventually indexed mechanical rates, meaning that they floated upward with the Consumer Price Index. (CPI has its own problems, but it’s a bogey that lots of people use so it’s easier than reinventing the wheel with a bespoke factor.)

Given what has been happening in the economy, it was inevitable that inflation was about to come back strong in the U.S. and global economy. Sure enough, the Department of Labor announced yesterday:

The Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers (CPI-U) increased 0.8 percent in April on a seasonally adjusted basis after rising 0.6 percent in March, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Over the last 12 months, the all items index increased 4.2 percent before seasonal adjustment. This is the largest 12-month increase since a 4.9-percent increase for the period ending September 2008.

Yes, the CPI ignored the Fed and increased like the pesky little devil it is. There’s no reason to think that this is going to stop any time soon. (If you were born after 1960 or so, you may not remember that inflation and stagflation resulted in the prime interest rate peaking at 21.5% in December of 1980. That drove mortgage rates to 13.41% in 1981 (often plus points). And then there were the credit cards. That’s where inflation can lead. Personally, my money is on stagflation in the form of high inflation and high unemployment due to what Secretary Yellen called the scarring effects of the pandemic which the music business is experiencing in spades.)

April 2021 DOL Inflation

It just wouldn’t be prudent to enter into a long term contract at a fixed rate that does not take into account inflation. Yet that is exactly what the tentative settlement wants to do with the mechanical rate for physical, downloads, and a couple other categories. Yet, we must acknowledge that it is very difficult to herd the cats to get them to agree to anything. But having gotten everyone to agree to freezing mechanicals and having gotten the CRB to agree to adopt that agreement in the past, it may be the case that the parties can get the CRB to let them increase mechanicals going forward.

In other words, take a lesson from Taylor Swift and Eddie Cue and do a quick course correction before the final settlement gets announced on May 18.

So what would that look like? Precedent suggests that the CRB (and its predecessors) have accepted two principal methods of increasing the rate, which is phased in over time: fixed penny-rate increases and CPI indexing. My suggestion would be to employ both methods in a greater of formula (so popular with streaming).

If phased in over 5 years like other rates, it seems that there could be an immediate step up to compensate songwriters for a rate was frozen starting at the time that physical was still a very significant percentage of sales back in 2006. That stepped up rate could then gradually increase with a greater of a fixed penny increase or CPI. I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone what that step up should be, but if you apply the CPI index, it should probably be about 4¢, bringing the minimum rate to 13¢ from 9.1¢. Given that big–albeit entirely justified–jump, increases over the out years might be more modest.

Now that we know that there’s a strong possibility that inflation will be in our lives for the foreseeable future, the good news is there’s still time to do something about it. The CRB has shown us that they are willing to accept radical changes in the mechanical royalty rate by adopting private settlements, so there seems to be no impediment. I’m not aware of a rule that says the CRB only adopts rules that freeze songwriters in place, so it should work to the songwriters betterment and not just to their detriment.

We should ask, what would Taylor and Eddie do?

Guest Post: Where is the Save Our Stages Money to #SaveOurStages? Texas Music Office Leads the Charge

By Chris Castle

We all breathed a bit easier when we heard that the $15 billion Save Our Stages legislation authored by Austin Rep. Roger Williams and Texas Senator John Cornyn had passed the Congress and was signed into law last December as part of the $2.3-trillion Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021. SOS is administered by the Small Business Administration and allows live performance venues, movie theaters, and talent agencies to apply for relief grants if they’ve lost at least 25% of their revenue due to the pandemic up to a maximum of $10 million. Venues employing fewer than 50 full-time (also known as every music venue I know of) can apply for a share of a $2 billion of the fund to cover payroll, rent, utilities, and insurance. 

The problem is that the Small Business Administration has failed to implement an application process so that venues can even apply–and months are going by.  As states reopen, thriving venues are going to be a big part of the economic recover, particularly in a state like Texas.  What’s even more bizarre than the SBA not having an application process in place (or bridge loans or something) is that the City of Austin has managed to distribute millions to the Austin music community while waiting for the legislation, which Rep. Williams and Senator Cornyn got through Congress in record time–which may be because Austin wants to keep the title of “Live Music Capitol of the World” when the live music business reopens.

It is very difficult to understand why the SBA is taking so long to distribute appropriated funds for federal legislation that was bipartisan and not controversial.  It’s not just me–Governor Abbot’s Texas Music Office s leading the charge to light a fire under the SBA.  

If you want to let you views be known, you can write to the SBA at advocacy@sba.gov contact your local members of Congress or your state and city economic development offices.

Here’s a letter from Texas Music Office Director Brendon Anthony to the head of the SBA asking for her to expedite the applications:

February 25, 2021

Tami Perriello, Acting Administrator
U.S. Small Business Administration
409 3rd St SW
Washington, DC 20416

Dear Acting Secretary Perriello:

Thank you for all that you do in service of the SBA, on behalf of  the American  people. And  thank  you for your organization’s steadfast work assisting small businesses across the state of Texas, and beyond, during the pandemic. At the TMO, we hear firsthand from our constituents that the daily work of the regional SBA offices has provided an invaluable lifeline of resources and information, supporting the livelihoods of countless hardworking Texans.

As Director of the Texas Music Office (TMO), a division of the Office of the Governor’s Economic Development & Tourism Office, my team and I represent the more than 210,000 constituents and their permanent jobs within the Texas music industry. We implore you to accelerate opening the application window for the U.S. Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Shuttered Venue Operators Grant in order to help provide a bridge to saving one of the first industries impacted by Covid -19 mitigation,and ultimately one of the last industries that will be able to fully re-open.

As of February 2020, combined, the music industry and music education in Texas directly accounted for $4.4 billion in annual earnings, and just over $ I 0.8 billion  in  annual  economic  activity.  The ripple effects associated with the direct injection related to music business and  music education  in Texas bring the total impact to $8.8 billion in earnings and $27.3 billion in annual economic activity.

Although most music fans around the world are familiar with our state’s largest music brands like Austin City Limits Festival and the SXSW Music Conference, it’s the small venues and historic dancehalls where Texas musicians cut their teeth which are currently impacted by closure. These hallowed venues are the testing grounds for our chart-topping artists like Beyonce, Selena, Willie Nelson, George Strait, Travis Scott, and so many more.

As each week passes, we lose more and more small music venues to permanent closure. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant will be a crucial stopgap to helping our state’s music industry survive, providing the state’s music venues a bridge to help them weather this catastrophic event

On behalf of the Texas Music Office and its constituents from all across the state, please take the necessary steps to open applications for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant so that the Texas music industry    and the thousands of individuals employed by the state’s small venues – may live to see another day, as the permanent closure of these venues would  be immeasurable  to our state’s economy and culture.

Brendon Anthony

Director, Texas Music 
Office Office of the Governor

The venues really need our help to pry loose the money from the SBA that has already been appropriated by Congress.  I don’t ask for this often, but the Trichordist audience is very effective at contacting their governments.  Remember, that’s advocacy@sba.gov

Guest Post: The False Double Payment Bottom of the MMA Black Box

By Chris Castle

[T-Editor says: This post first appeared on MusicTechPolicy]

The Dog Who Didn’t Bark On the Mirror

There seems to be some concern about pre-Music Modernization Act confidential lump sum payments of accrued black box monies under direct licenses or settlement agreements.  Services are promoting the idea that these payments must be deducted from the cumulative black box payments required for services to get the benefit of the limitation on liability and reach back safe harbor. 

That limitation on liability, of course, comes with a condition that the services use “good faith, commercially reasonable efforts” to match works to copyright owners.  Uses that remain unmatched are then turned over to the Mechanical Licensing Collective for matching and distribution.

The Digital Music Providers [“DMPs”] are now promoting the payment of black box as an option for which they can elect to take the limitation on liability.   The Digital Licensee Coordinator [representing the DMPs] tells us “If the regulations make it less likely that a DMP will be able to rely on that liability protection when it needs iti.e., if it increases the risk that a court would deem a DMP to not have complied with the requirements in section 115(d)(10)—a DMP could make the rational choice to forego the payment of accrued royalties entirely, and save that money to use in defending itself against any infringement suits.”

The SOCAN company MediaNet tells us that absent some aggressive concessions by the Congress to essentially re-write the Copyright Act in their favor, “MediaNet may decline to take advantage of the limitation on liability, which may deprive copyright owners of additional accrued royalties.”  

The DMPs have somehow managed to convince themselves that payments of unallocated sums under settlement agreements (which they weren’t required to match before the MMA) and payments of unallocated sums under the MMA’s black box (which they are required to match under the MMA) are a “double payment.”  While easy to say, “double payment” makes it sound like someone paid twice for the same thing.  That would be bad if it were true.  

But it’s not.

Betting and Strangers

Certain DMPs and certain publishers made settlement agreements of prior unpaid royalties.  We don’t know exactly what gave rise to those agreements but we do know that they covered unmatched (and therefore unallocated) black box payments.  Because the payments were unmatched, they were necessarily a lump sum payment to the participating publisher (although the amounts may have been reduced by commissions for administering the lump sum distributions under so-far confidential settlements).  

At the time of the settlement, nobody did the work to match the unallocated.  This is important for at least two reasons:  Because the works were not matched, the lump sum couldn’t have been allocated to specific works owned by strangers to the settlement.   Therefore there was no initial payment to those strangers, the strangers were not represented in the transaction, the strangers did not authorize the settlement of their claims, and there was no legal basis for the parties to settle ripe but inchoate claims the strangers could have made had they been asked.

The lump sum settlement was evidently based on market share of the then-unallocated black box.  Market share payments would be a typical way to avoid doing the work of matching.  It’s like a DMP saying to a publisher “I’ll make you a bet—if you have 10% market share of the known knowns, I’ll bet that the most I owe you for then known unknowns is 10% of the cash value of the unallocated black box.  Particularly if you are the first payment.”

Why not do the matching at the time?  We’ll come back to that.  

Betting Secrecy

The settling publisher feels they made a good bet and accepts the terms.  The DSP adds one additional post closing condition—the bet must be secret.  The settling publisher will likely voluntarily distribute the monies to their own songwriters on a ratio of earnings (similar to market share), so it can’t be entirely secret.  And there are no secrets in the music business.  But given these realities, why must the bet be secret?  

To keep the strangers to the bet in the dark.

If the bet is announced, strangers to the bet may decide they need to look into how much they are owed.  They may not be willing to take a bet.  They may want what the statute contemplates—good faith commercially reasonable efforts to actually match.

After the DMPs negotiated their safe harbor in the MMA—remembering that the black box payment was never sold to songwriters as optional—it became apparent that all the strangers were now going to be paid for all the uses that were never matched as a part of the lump sum bet.  All the DMPs efforts to keep the strangers in the dark were going to be exposed.  And exposed all at once.  To what end is this secrecy?  Probably for the same reason the DMPs have never posted the unmatched (unlike Royalties Reunited or the AFM-SAG/AFTRA Trust Funds.

Who’s At Fault?

The settling publishers have done absolutely nothing wrong here.  They could have pressed for matching but chose to take the bet.  Could be high, could be low, but seemed like a good bet at the time.  

Plus, by making the bet, they did not take anything away from strangers.  The DMPs still owed an obligation to the strangers.  The settling publishers did not owe the strangers anything.  

This is why the bet is not a double payment so long as the settling publishers are not claiming any uses that were released and settled, which they are not as far as we can tell.  

If the DMPs made a bad bet, that’s on them.  

The DMPs cannot now reduce a cumulative unmatched black box by the prior bets they made.  And of course, as transactions are matched, the unknown knowns become known knowns and are paid out.  In order to accomplish the purpose of the statute, all the transactions must be reported. 

The MMA “deal” was for cumulative payment of the black box.  If settling publishers end up having matched works in the black box—when the unknown become known—those per-transaction payments can be offset to the extent they were covered by a prior release agreed to by a bettor.

But what they cannot do is simply say I made a bet with these guys, so I’m going to claw that back from what I owe to other people who are strangers to the bet.  That’s not a double payment either to the bettor or the stranger to the bet.

Letter of Misdirection

I also do not understand a conversation about letters of direction in this context.  As known unknowns get matched, the DMP should render a statement.  

If the known unknown becomes a known known, that statement will reflect at a minimum the title, copyright owner and the usage as well as whatever other metadata the regulations require.  The now known knowns will either be payable as matched works or have already been covered by a settlement and release for the corresponding period.

In the former case, the payable royalty will be available.  In the latter case, the royalty will have already been paid as part of the settlement.  If that settlement royalty is included in the corresponding black box, that settled usage would be deducted as already paid, which would have a corresponding reduction in the total amount of accrued but unpaid royalties.  That’s not a letter of direction, that’s an offset against otherwise payable royalties due to matching.  

Alternatively, the settling publisher would not be allowed to make a claim for the periods subject to the release because they have no live claims, assuming a total settlement and release for the corresponding accounting period.

Said another way, whatever transactions are in the pending file stay in the pending file with accrued royalties until claimed.  Prior settlements can only be deducted from the transaction lines in the pending file that are for songs owned or controlled by publishers that fall under a prior settlement.  

Tolling the Statute of Limitations

The way the DMPs have actually harmed the strangers is by keeping quiet on this idea that the reach back safe harbor is optional.  They could have raised this issue during the drafting of MMA and after.  But they waited until they had scared away anyone except Eight Mile Style from suing while in theory statutes of limitations ran out starting on 1/1/18 at a minimum.  They used the MMA as a kind of in terrorem stick.

That is grossly unfair.  This has to be changed so that strangers who didn’t make the bet, who didn’t get the payment, and who were silent with their ripe claims since 1/1/18 are not harmed.  

It’s all fine for the DLC to say they do a cost benefit analysis and elect not to take the safe harbor while allowing strangers to be duped.  They should not be able to fool both Congress and the strangers.  Any statute of limitations running since 1/1/18 should be tolled, perhaps under the Copyright Office emergency powers.

Songwriter Black Box Payments

It is rare for a songwriter to have a royalty claim on unallocated catalog-wide payments such as black box monies absent a specific negotiated deal point.  This is a point of some contention with songwriters, so the Copyright Office should look into it as part of the black box study if nothing else.

This black box issue that keeps coming up may be many things, but a double payment it’s not.