Will the Copyright Royalty Board approve Big Tech’s attempted cover-up? 

By Chris Castle

[This MusicTechPolicy post appeared on Hypebot]

There’s an old saying among sailors that water always wins. Sunlight does, too. It may take a while, but time reveals all things in the cold light of dawn. So when you are free riding on huge blocks of aged government cheese like the digital music services do with the compulsory mechanical license, the question you should ask yourself is why hide from the sunlight? It just makes songwriters even more suspicious. 

This melodrama just played out at the Copyright Royalty Board with the frozen mechanicals proceeding. Right on cue, the digital services and their legions of lawyers proved they hadn’t learned a damn thing from that exercise. They turned right around and tried to jam a secret deal through the Copyright Royalty Board on the streaming mechanicals piece of Phonorecords IV. 

To their great credit, the labels handled frozen physical mechanicals quite differently. They voluntarily disclosed the side deal they made with virtually no redactions and certainly didn’t try to file it “under seal” like the services did. Filing “under seal” hides the major moving parts of a voluntary settlement from the world’s songwriters. Songwriters, of course, are the ones most affected by the settlement–which the services want the CRB to approve–some might say “rubber stamp”–and make law.

To fully appreciate the absolute lunacy of the services attempt at filing the purported settlement document under seal, you have to remember that the Copyright Royalty Judges spilled considerable ink in the frozen mechanicals piece of Phonorecords IV telling those participants how important transparency was when they rejected the initial Subpart B settlement.  

This happened mere weeks ago in the SAME PHONORECORDS IV PROCEEDING.

Were the services expecting the Judges to say “Just kidding”? What in the world were they thinking? Realize that filing the settlement–which IF ACCEPTED is then published by the Judges for public comment under the applicable rules established long ago by Congress–is quite different than filing confidential commercial information. You might expect redactions or filings under seal, “attorneys eyes only,” etc., in direct written statements, expert testimony or the other reams of paper all designed to help the Judges guess what rate a willing buyer would pay a willing seller. That rate to be applied to the world under a compulsory license which precludes willing buyers and willing sellers, thank you Franz Kafka. 

When you file the settlement, that document is the end product of all those tens of millions of dollars in legal fees that buy houses in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vinyard as well as send children to prep school, college and graduate school. Not the songwriters’ children, mind you, oh no. 

The final settlement is, in fact, the one document that should NEVER be redacted or secret. How else will the public–who may not get a vote but does get their say–even know what it is the law is based on assuming the Judges approve the otherwise secret deal. It’s asking the Judges to tell the public, the Copyright Office, their colleagues in the appeals courts and ultimately the Congress, sorry, our version of the law is based on secret information.

Does that even scan? I mean, seriously, what kind of buffoons come up with this stuff?  Of course the Judges will question the bona fides and provenance of the settlement. Do you think any other federal agency could get away with actually doing this? The lawlessness of the very idea is breathtaking and demonstrates conclusively in my view that these services like Google are the most dangerous corporations in the world. The one thing that gives solace after this display of arrogance is that some of them may get broken up before they render too many mechanical royalty accounting statements.

To their credit, after receiving the very thin initial filing the Judges instructed the services to do better–to be kind. The Judges issued an order that stated:

The Judges now ORDER the Settling Parties to certify, no later than five days from the date of this order, that the Motion and the Proposed Regulations annexed to the Motion represent the full agreement of the Settling Parties, i.e., that there are no other related agrements and no other clauses. If such other agreements or clauses exist, the Settling Parties shall file them no later than five days from the date of this order.

Just a tip to any younger lawyers reading this post–you really, really, really do not want to be on the receiving end of this kind of order.

Reading between the lines (and not very far) the Judges are telling the parties to come clean. Either “certify” to the Judges “that there are no other related agreements and no other clauses” or produce them. This use of the term “certify” means all the lawyers promise to the Judges as officers of the court that their clients have come clean, or alternatively file the actual documents.

That produced the absurd filing under seal, and that then produced the blowback that led to the filing of the unsealed and unreacted documents. But–wait, there’s more.

Take a close look at what the Judges asked for and what they received. The Judges asked for certification “that there are no other related agrements and no other clauses. If such other agreements or clauses exist, the Settling Parties shall file them no later than five days from the date of this order.”

What the Judges received is described in the purportedly responsive filing by the services:

The Settling Participants [aka the insiders] have provided all of the settlement documentsand, with this public filing, every interested party can fully evaluate and comment upon the settlement. The Settling Participants thus believe that the Judges have everything necessary to “publish the settlement in the Federal Register for notice and comment from those bound by the terms, rates, or other determination set by the” Settlement Agreement, as required under 37 C.F.R. 351.2(b)(2). The Settling Participants respectfully request that the Judges inform them if there is any further information that they require.

Notice that the Judges asked for evidence of the “full agreement of the Settling Parties”, meaning all side deals or other vigorish exchanged between the parties including the DSPs that control vast riches larger than most countries and are super-conflicted with the publishers due to their joint venture investment in the MLC quango.

The response is limited to “the settlement documents” and then cites to what the services no doubt think they can argue limits their disclosure obligations to what is necessary to “publish the settlement”. And then the services have the brass to add “The Settling Participants respectfully request that the Judges inform them if there is any further information that they require.” Just how are the Judges supposed to know if the services complied with the order? Is this candor?

It must also be noted that Google and the NMPA have “lodged” certain documents relating to YouTube’s direct agreements which they claim are not related to the settlement to be published for public comment. These documents are, of course, secret:

[And] are not part of the settlement agreement or understanding of the settling participants concerning the subject matter of the settlement agreement, and do not supersede any part of the settlement agreement with respect to the settling participants’ proposed Phonorecords IV rates and terms. Further, the letter agreements do not change or modify application of the terms to be codified at 37 C.F.R. 385 Subparts C and D, including as they apply to any participant. Rather, the letter agreements simply concern Google’s current allocation practices to avoid the double payment of royalties arising from YouTube’s having entered into direct agreements with certain music publishers while simultaneously operating under the Section 115 statutory license.

You’ll note that there are a number of declarative statements that lets the hoi polloi know that the Data Lords and Kings of the Internet Realms have determined some information involving their royalties is none of their concern. How do you know that you shouldn’t worry your pretty little head about some things? Because the Data Lords tell you so. And now, back to sleep you Epsilons.

So you see that despite the statements in the group filing to the CRB that the “Settling Participants” (i.e., the insiders) claim to have provided all of the settlement documents required by the Judges, Google turns right around and “lodges” this separate filing of still other documents that they think might be related documents with some bearing on the settlement that should be disclosed to the public but they apparently will not be disclosing without a fight. How do we know this? Because they pretty much say so:

Because the letter agreements are subject to confidentiality restrictions and have each only been disclosed to their individual signatories, each such music publisher having an extant direct license agreement with Google, Google and NMPA are lodging the letter agreements directly with the Copyright Royalty Judges, who may then make a determination as to whether the letter agreements are relevant and what, if anything, should be disclosed notwithstanding the confidentiality restrictions in each of the letter agreements.

Ah yes, the old “nondisclosure” clause. You couldn’t ask for a better example of how NDAs are used to hide information from songwriters about their own money.

The Judges noted when rejecting the similar initial frozen mechanical regulations that:

Parties have an undeniable right of contract. The Judges, however, are not required to adopt the terms of any contract, particularly when the contract at issue relates in part, albeit by reference, to additional unknown terms that indicate additional unrevealed consideration passing between the parties, which consideration might have an impact on effective royalty rates. 

So there’s that.

What this all boils down to is that the richest and most dangerous corporations in commercial history are accustomed to algorithmically duping consumers, vendors and even governments in the dark and getting away with it. The question is, if you believe that sunlight always wins, do they still want to hide as long as they can and then look stupid, or do they want to come clean to begin with and be honest brokers.

As Willie Stark famously said in All the King’s Men, “Time reveals all things, I trust it so.”

@MMercuriadis on the @CMAgovUK’s Whiff on the Streaming Report

Hipgnosis CEO Merck Mercuriadis had a strong statement in Music Week about the Competition and Markets Authority’s swing and a miss at the obviously absurd music streaming system as it was clearly identified by the groundbreaking report from the Digital Culture Media and Sport Select Committee of the UK Parliament. Given the good work done by the DCMS committee, the CMA report is simply insulting to those Members of Parliament.

Bob Welch and Reggie Jackson, Game 2 1978 World Series

Unfortunately the CMA report reads like a lobbyist’s press release and Mercuriadis lays it down and calls them out. Even though this is a little inside baseball in the UK, Trichordist readers understand that the underlying issues involve every songwriter and involve every artist regardless of where you live and regardless of where you claim as home. Mercuriadis is exactly right, the money is there it’s just not getting to the right people.

The battle continues.

“[Hipgnosis] would like to thank the Competition and Markets Authority for acknowledging in its report today the lack of transparency in the music streaming market, and for highlighting the continued dominance of the market by the major labels and recorded music, along with the severely adverse impact this is having on songwriters’ ability to earn a living,” he said. “However, with 70% of all those responding to the CMA consultation calling for reform, it is regrettable that the CMA is not minded to investigate and address the clear failures its study identified.

“The Digital Culture Media and Sport select committee in its July 2021 report on the economics of music streaming – ‘Music streaming must modernize. Is anybody listening?’ – called for the CMA to address the economic impact of the music majors’ dominance.

“Today the CMA has not acted to address the impact on the creative songwriting community, and this is a missed opportunity to follow up on those concerns raised by Members of Parliament on the Digital Culture Media and Sport select committee. It is a disappointment for songwriters who earn pitiful returns from streaming, not because there is not enough to go round, but simply because it is not being shared fairly and equitably.”

Mercuriadis added: “Hipgnosis will continue to call for fundamental reform of a broken system which does not recognise the paramount role of the songwriter in the music ecosystem. We have always believed that the ultimate solution lies within the music industry itself and we will continue to advocate on behalf of songwriters with the major recorded music companies to push for a fair and equitable split. There would be no recorded music industry without songwriters.

“Legislative and government authorities have the power to redress the economic imbalance where major recorded music companies that own and control the major publishing companies are purposefully undervaluing the songwriter’s contribution. The Intellectual Property Office [UK’s Copyright Office] has a key role to play in redressing the imbalance and we will continue to support its work and efforts.

“Hipgnosis will continue to campaign for change at the highest levels, using our success to advocate and fight on behalf of the songwriting community and to take the songwriter from the bottom of the economic equation to the top.”

The @CMAgovUK UK Competition and Markets Authority’s Missed Opportunity: Reaction from @MrTomGray #BrokenRecord

The literature suggests that in the presence of…positive feedbacks [from the Get Big Fast strategy], firms should pursue an aggressive strategy in which they seek to grow as rapidly as possible and preempt their rivals. Typical tactics include pricing below the short-run profit-maximizing level (or even below the cost of goods sold), rapidly expanding capacity, advertising heavily, and forming alliances to build market clout with suppliers and workers and to deter entry of new players. Intuitively, such aggressive strategies are superior because they increase both industry demand and the aggressive firm’s share of that demand, stimulating the positive feedbacks described above.

Limits to Grown in the NEw Economy: Exploring the Get big Fast strategy in ecommerce https://scripts.mit.edu/~jsterman/docs/Oliva-2003-LimitsToGrowthInTheNewEconomy.pdf

By Chris Castle

You may have seen that the UK Competition and Markets Authority released a report on music streaming in the UK. Of course, because the same players dominate the UK market like they do in France…sorry, I meant Germany…sorry I meant Canada…sorry I meant Sweden…sorry I meant the United States…how different could the competition issues be for US artists and songwriters? You have the biggest corporations in commercial history (Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google) and the “get big fast” wannabes like Spotify (and Pandora in the US) on one side, the three major labels and the music publishing affiliates on the other side and the artists, songwriters, indie labels, indie publishers and especially the session musicians and vocalists squeezed in the middle.

Plus you have all of the biggest of Big Tech companies as well as wannabe Get-Big-Fast acolytes like Spotify and Pandora setting almost identical price points and freezing them there for a decade while refusing to exercise pricing power and nobody finds that just a trifle odd? Then in the grandest of grand deflections passing this off as the “pie” that everyone should look at instead of acknowledging that it’s the poptart served at the kid’s table in the nursery instead of the feast at the adult’s table in the dining room where the gravy bowls of shares of public stock are handed out dot-bomb style with a side of advertising barter. All while singing an apologia for payola and consumer welfare based on cheapness? You know there’s another way to get really, really cheap goods for consumers that ain’t quite so well received in history.

And yet somehow the Competition and Markets Authority passes this off as good for the consumer? With no meaningful discussion of the Malthusian and anticompetitive effects of the pro-rata model and pretty much summarily ignoring the actual revenue earned by “successful” artists in the beggar-thy-neighbor pricing and revenue charade. Not to mention the complete failure to discuss the supervoting stock at Spotify, Google and Facebook and all the other accoutrements of power that give Daniel Ek, Martin Lorentzen, Tim Cook, Sergey Brin, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos control over the global music industry–pale males one and all and also looking pretty stale around the edges the singularity notwithstanding. And then there’s Bytedance and Tencent.

The logic of the CMA in avoiding these issues rivals the Warren Commission’s Single Bullet Theory. But makes total sense as the triumph of the lobbyists for the biggest corporations in commercial history. And sometimes you just might find you get what you need.

We will continue to dig into this latest report and its methodology as will others like Tom Gray, the dynamic founder of the hugely effective #BrokenRecord campaign that led to this investigation which is not over by a long shot. Tom had this reaction to a what’s next question and we take his guidance:

The CMA’s initial findings are:

the music market doesn’t have much competition;

the actions of the Majors and DSPs actively reduce that competition;

artists and songwriters are mostly, if not entirely, doing badly out of it;

but they accept the status quo using the narrowest paradigm of competition and its value to the consumer. It doesn’t go near the fact that the Majors used market power to create the very ‘norms’ the report resigns us to.

A difficult read: one which points to the weakness or indifference of national ‘authorities’ in the face of the gross expansion of multi-nationals unfettered by regulation. Monopolies should be broken to protect citizens and workers, not only to defend consumerism’s need of a saving.

What’s most ironic is you could take the CMA’s findings to a different authority with a more progressive outlook and get a completely different result. They simply don’t seem to have considered it their job to care about the hugely visible negative consequences of concentrated power on musicmakers.

If you would like to tell the Competition and Markets Authority what you think about their statements they want to hear from you.

Must See Documentary: The Way the Music Died: Why You Should #DitchSpotify

Big thanks to Jon at Camden Live for posting about this really important documentary about the deep, down and dirty effects of Spotify on music, musicians and the creative process.

It’s always been a hard road for musicians to make money from their songs. Nonetheless, selling tons of singles and albums was at least a target and something bands could dream about.  Of course, there were many ways the labels could work the sales figures to get their shares out first, and only then the bands might see something. Despite the conflict between the often industrial-strength labels and the upcoming artists, there was at least hope that money was flowing back to the content creators.  Now though in the age of streaming music, the connection between making music and making a living is profoundly broken.

This schism is the subject matter for Lightbringer Production’s documentary film “The Way The Music Died” featuring insights from musicians and industry pros, including Mishkin Fitzgerald from Birdeatsbaby.  The film probes the spirit of artists determined to keep writing songs in the face of the meager payouts from the giant and ever-growing music stream service Spotify. Find out why this is ripping-out the heart and soul of new music.

Spotify’s ESG fail: Governance

This is the third of a three part post on Spotify’s failure to qualify as an “ESG” stock. 

[This is an extension of Spotify’s ESG Fail: Environment and Spotify’s ESG Fail: Social. “ESG” is a Wall Street acronym often attributed to Larry Finkat Blackrock that designates a company as suitable for socially conscious investing based on its “Environmental, Social and Governance” business practices. See the Upright Net Impact data model on Spotify’s sustainability score. As of this writing, the last update of Spotify’s Net Impact score was before the Neil Young scandal.]

Spotify has one big governance problem that permeates its governance like a putrid miasma in the abattoir: “Dual-class stock” sometimes referred to as “supervoting” stock. If you’ve never heard the term, buckle up. I wrote an extensive post on this subject for the New York Daily News that you may find interesting.

Dual class stock allows the holders of those shares–invariably the founders of the public company when it was a private company–to control all votes and control all board seats. Frequently this is accomplished by giving the founders a special class of stock that provides 10 votes for every share or something along those lines. The intention is to give the founders dead hand control over their startup in a kind of corporate reproductive right so that no one can interfere with their vision as envoys of innovation sent by the Gods of the Transhuman Singularity. You know, because technology.

Google was one of the first Silicon Valley startups to adopt this capitalization structure and it is consistent with the Silicon Valley venture capital investor belief in infitilism and the Peter Pan syndrome so that the little children may guide us. The problem is that supervoting stock is forever, well after the founders are bald and porky despite their at-home beach volleyball courts and warmed bidets.

Spotify, Facebook and Google each have a problem with “dual class” stock capitalizations.  Because regulators allow these companies to operate with this structure favoring insiders, the already concentrated streaming music industry is largely controlled by Daniel Ek, Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg.  (While Amazon and Apple lack the dual class stock structure, Jeff Bezos has an outsized influence over both streaming and physical carriers.  Apple’s influence is far more muted given their refusal to implement payola-driven algorithmic enterprise playlist placement for selection and rotation of music and their concentration on music playback hardware.)

The voting power of Ek, Brin, Page and Zuckerberg in their respective companies makes shareholder votes candidates for the least suspenseful events in commercial history.  However, based on market share, Spotify essentially controls the music streaming business.  Let’s consider some of the  implications for competition of this disfavored capitalization technique.

Commissioner Robert Jackson, formerly of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, summed up the problem:

“[D]ual class” voting typically involves capitalization structures that contain two or more classes of shares—one of which has significantly more voting power than the other. That’s distinct from the more common single-class structure, which gives shareholders equal equity and voting power. In a dual-class structure, public shareholders receive shares with one vote per share, while insiders receive shares that empower them with multiple votes. And some firms [Snap, Inc. and Google Class B shares] have recently issued shares that give ordinary public investors no vote at all.

For most of the modern history of American equity markets, the New York Stock Exchange did not list companies with dual-class voting. That’s because the Exchange’s commitment to corporate democracy and accountability dates back to before the Great Depression. But in the midst of the takeover battles of the 1980s, corporate insiders “who saw their firms as being vulnerable to takeovers began lobbying [the exchanges] to liberalize their rules on shareholder voting rights.”  Facing pressure from corporate management and fellow exchanges, the NYSE reversed course, and today permits firms to go public with structures that were once prohibited.

Spotify is the dominant streaming firm and the voting power of Spotify stockholders is concentrated in two men:  Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon.  Transitively, those two men literally control the music streaming sector through their voting shares, are extending their horizontal reach into the rapidly consolidating podcasting business and aspire soon to enter the audiobooks vertical.  Where do they get the money is a question on every artists lips after hearing the Spotify poormouthing and seeing their royalty statements.

The effects of that control may be subtle; for example, Spotify engages in multi-billion dollar stock buybacks and debt offerings, but has yet makes ever more spectacular losses while refusing to exercise pricing power.  

So yes, Spotify is starting to look like the kind of Potemkin Village that investment bankers love because they see oodles of the one thing that matters: Fees.

On the political side, let’s see what the company’s campaign contributions tell us:

Spotify has also made a habit out of hiring away government regulators like Regan Smith, the former General Counsel and Associate Register of the US Copyright Office who joined Spotify as head of US public policy (a euphemism for bag person) after drafting all of the regulations for the Mechanical Licensing Collective;

Whether this is enough to trip Spotify up on the abuse of political contributions I don’t know, but the revolving door part certainly does call into question Spotify’s ethics.

It does seem that these are the kinds of facts that should be taken into account when determining Spotify’s ESG score. At this point, it looks like Spotify is an ESG fail–which may require divesting by some of the over 600 mutual funds that hold shares.

Spotify’s ESG Fail: Social

By Chris Castle

[This post first appeared on MusicTechSolutions.]

Investopedia ESG criteria

[This post is Part 2 of a three part post on Spotify’s ESG Fail, and is an extension of Spotify’s ESG Fail: Environment. “ESG” is a Wall Street acronym often attributed to Larry Fink at Blackrock that designates a company as suitable for socially conscious investing based on its “Environmental, Social and Governance” business practices. See the Upright Net Impact data model on Spotify’s sustainability score. As of this writing, the last update of Spotify’s Net Impact score was before the Neil Young scandal.]

I started to write this post in the pre-Neil Young era and I almost feel like I could stop with the title. But there’s a lot more to it, so let’s look at the many ways Spotify is a fail on the Social part of ESG.

Before Spotify’s Joe Rogan problem, Spotify had both an ethical supply chain problem and a “fair wage” problem on the music side of its business, which for this post we will limit to fair compensation to its ultimate vendors being artists and songwriters. In fact, Spotify is an example to music-tech entrepreneurs of how not to conduct their business.

Treatment of Songwriters

On the songwriter side of the house, let’s not fall into the mudslinging that is going on over the appeal by Spotify (among others) of the Copyright Royalty Board’s ruling in the mechanical royalty rate setting proceeding known as Phonorecords III. Yes, it’s true that streaming screws songwriters even worse that artists, but not only because Spotify exercised its right of appeal of the Phonorecords III case that was pending during the extensive negotiations of Title I of the Music Modernization Act. (Title I is the whole debacle of the Mechanical Licensing Collective scam and the retroactive copyright infringement safe harbor currently being litigated on Constitutional grounds.)

The main reason that Spotify had the right to appeal available to it after passing the MMA was because the negotiators of Title I didn’t get all of the services to give up their appeal right (called a “waiver”) as a condition of getting the substantial giveaways in the MMA. A waiver would have been entirely appropriate given all the goodies that songwriters gave away in the MMA. When did Noah build the Ark?  Before the rain. The negotiators might have gotten that message if they had opened the negotiations to a broader group, but they didn’t so now they’ve got the hot potato no matter how much whinging they do.

Having said that, you will notice that Apple took pity on this egregious oversight and did not appeal the Phonorecords III ruling. You don’t always have to take advantage of your vendor’s negotiating failures, particularly when you are printing money and when being generous would help your vendor keep providing songs. And Mom always told me not to mock the afflicted. Plus it’s good business–take Walmart as an example. Walmart drives a hard bargain, but they leave the vendor enough margin to keep making goods, otherwise the vendor will go under soon or run a business solely to service debt only to go under later. And realize that the decision to be generous is pretty much entirely up to Walmart. Spotify could do the same.

Is being cheap unethical? Is leveraging stupidity unethical? Is trying to recover the costs of the MLC by heavily litigating streaming mechanicals unethical (or unexpected)? Maybe. A great man once said failing to be generous is the most expensive mistake you’ll ever make. So yes, I do think it is unethical although that’s a debatable point. Spotify has not made themselves many friends by taking that course. But what is not debatable is Spotify’s unethical treatment of artists.

Treatment of Artists

The entire streaming royalty model confirms what I call “Ek’s Law” which is related to “Moore’s Law”. Instead of chip speed doubling every 18 months in Moore’s Law, royalties are cut in half every 18 months with Ek’s Law. This reduction over time is an inherent part of the algebra of the streaming business model as I’ve discussed in detail in Arithmetic on the Internet as well as the study I co-authored with Dr. Claudio Feijoo for the World Intellectual Property Organization. These writings have caused a good deal of discussion along with the work of Sharky Laguana about the “Big Pool” or what’s come to be called the “market centric” royalty model.

Dissatisfaction with the market centric model has led to a discussion of the “user-centric” model as an alternative so that fans don’t pay for music they don’t listen to. But it’s also possible that there is no solution to the streaming model because everybody whose getting rich (essentially all Spotify employees and owners of big catalogs) has no intention of changing anything voluntarily. 

It would be easy to say “fair is where we end up” and write off Ek’s Law as just a function of the free market. But the market centric model was designed to reward a small number of artists and big catalog owners without letting consumers know what was happening to the money they thought they spent to support the music they loved. As Glenn Peoples wrote last year (Fare Play: Could SoundCloud’s User-Centric Streaming Payouts Catch On?

When Spotify first negotiated its initial licensing deals with labels in the late 2000s, both sides focused more on how much money the service would take in than the best way to divide it. The idea they settled on, which divides artist payouts based on the overall popularity of recordings, regardless of how they map to individuals’ listening habits, was ‘the simplest system to put together at the time,’ recalls Thomas Hesse, a former Sony Music executive who was involved in those conversations.

In other words, the market centric model was designed behind closed doors and then presented to the world’s artists and musicians as a take it or leave it with an overhyped helping of FOMO.

As we wrote in the WIPO study, the market centric model excludes nonfeatured musicians altogether. These studio musicians and vocalists are cut out of the Spotify streaming riches made off their backs except in two countries and then only because their unions fought like dogs to enforce national laws that require streaming platforms to pay nonfeatured performers.

The other Spotify problem is its global dominance and imposition of largely Anglo-American repertoire in other countries. The company does this for one big reason–they tell a growth story to Wall Street to juice their stock price. In fact, Daniel Ek just did this last week on his Groundhog Day earnings call with stock analysts. For example he said:

The number one thing that we’re stretched for at the moment is more inventory. And that’s why you see us introducing things such as fan and other things. And then long-term with a little bit more horizon, it’s obviously international.

Both user-centric and market-centric are focused on allocating a theoretical revenue “pie” which is so tiny for any one artist (or songwriter) who is not in the top 1 or 5 percent this week that it’s obvious the entire model is bankrupt until it includes the value that makes Daniel Ek into a digital munitions investor–the stock.

Debt and Stock Buybacks

Spotify has taken on substantial levels of debt for a company that makes a profit so infrequently you can say Spotify is unprofitable–which it is on a fully diluted basis in any event. According to its most recent balance sheet, Spotify owes approximately $1.3 billion in long term–secured–debt. 

You might ask how a company that has never made a profit qualifies to borrow $1.3 billion and you’d have a point there. But understand this: If Spotify should ever go bankrupt, which in their case would probably be a reorganization bankruptcy, those lenders are going to stand in the secured creditors line and they will get paid in full or nearly in full well before Spotify meets any of its obligations to artists, songwriters, labels and music publishers, aka unsecured creditors.

Did Title I of the Music Modernization Act take care of this exposure for songwriters who are forced to license but have virtually no recourse if the licensee fails to pay and goes bankrupt? Apparently not–but then the lobbyists would say if they’d insisted on actual protection and reform there would have been no bill (pka no bonus). 

Right. Because “modernization” (whatever that means).

But to our question here–is it ethical for a company that is totally dependent on creator output to be able to take on debt that pushes the royalties owed to those creators to the back of the bankruptcy lines? I think the answer is no.

Spotify has also engaged in a practice that has become increasingly popular in the era of zero interest rates (or lower bound rates anyway) and quantitative easing: stock buy backs.

Stock buy backs were illegal until the Securities and Exchange Commission changed the law in 1982 with the safe harbor Rule 10b-18. (A prime example of unelected bureaucrats creating major changes in the economy, but that’s a story for another day.) 

Stock buy backs are when a company uses the shareholders money to buy outstanding shares of their company and reduce the number of shares trading (aka “the float”). Stock buy backs can be accomplished a few ways such as through a tender offer (a public announcement that the company will buy back x shares at $y for z period of time); open market purchases on the exchange; or buying the shares through direct negotiations, usually with holders of larger blocks of stock. 

Vox’s Matt Yglesias sums it up nicely:

A stock buyback is basically a secondary offering in reverse — instead of selling new shares of stock to the public to put more cash on the corporate balance sheet, a cash-rich company expends some of its own funds on buying shares of stock from the public.

Why do companies buy back their own stock? To juice their financials by artificially increasing earnings per share.

Spotify has announced two different repurchase programs since going public according to their annual report for 12/31/21:

Share Repurchase Program On August 20, 2021, [Spotify] announced that the board of directors [controlled by Daniel Ek] had approved a program to repurchase up to $1.0 billion of the Company’s ordinary shares. Repurchases of up to 10,000,000 of the Company’s ordinary shares were authorized at the Company’s general meeting of shareholders on April 21, 2021. The repurchase program will expire on April 21, 2026. The timing and actual number of shares repurchased depends on a variety of factors, including price, general business and market conditions, and alternative investment opportunities. The repurchase program is executed consistent with the Company’s capital allocation strategy of prioritizing investment to grow the business over the long term. The repurchase program does not obligate the Company to acquire any particular amount of ordinary shares, and the repurchase program may be suspended or discontinued at any time at the Company’s discretion. The Company uses current cash and cash equivalents and the cash flow it generates from operations to fund the share repurchase program.

The authorization of the previous share repurchase program, announced on November 5, 2018, expired on April 21, 2021. The total aggregate amount of repurchased shares under that program was 4,366,427 for a total of approximately $572 million.

Is it ethical to take a billion dollars and buy back shares to juice the stock price while fighting over royalties every chance they get and crying poor? I think not. 

I think there’s clearly a legitimate question of whether Spotify fails on the environmental and social prongs of ESG. In Part 3 we will consider “governance.”

Spotify’s ESG Fail: Environment

Bu Chris Castle

[This is the first in a series of three short posts examining how Spotify scores as an Environmental, Social and Governance (or “ESG”) investment. “ESG” is a Wall Street acronym often attributed to Larry Fink at Blackrock that designates a company as suitable for socially conscious investing based on its “Environmental, Social and Governance” business practices, that is “ESG”. See the Upright Net Impact data model on Spotify’s sustainability score. As of this writing, the last update of Spotify’s Net Impact score was before the Neil Young scandal and, of course, rocketing energy prices that compound the environmental impact of streaming. These posts first appeared on MusicTechSolutions]

Spotify has an ESG problem, and a closer look may offer insights into a wider problem in the tech industry as a whole. If a decade of destroying artist and songwriter revenues isn’t enough to get your attention, maybe the Neil Young and Joe Rogan imbroglio will. But a minute’s analysis shows you that Spotify was already an ESG fail well before Neil Young’s ultimatum.

Streaming is an Environmental Fail

I first began posting about streaming as an environmental fail years ago in the YouTube and Google world. Like so many other ways that the BIg Tech PR machine glosses over their dependence on cheap energy right through their supply chain from electric cars to cat videos, YouTube did not want to discuss the company as a climate disaster zone. To hear them tell it, YouTube, and indeed the entire Google megalopolis right down to the Google Street View surveillance team was powered by magic elves running on appropriate golden flywheels with suitable work rules. Or other culturally appropriate spin from Google’s ham handed PR teams.

Mission creepy meets the Sound of Music

Greenpeace first wrote about “dirty data” in 2011–the year Spotify launched in the US. Too bad Spotify ignored the warnings.  Harvard Business Review also tells us that 2011 was a demarcation point for environmental issues at Microsoft following that Greenpeace report:

In 2011, Microsoft’s top environmental and sustainability executive, Rob Bernard, asked the company’s risk-assessment team to evaluate the firm’s exposure. It soon concluded that evolving carbon regulations and fluctuating energy costs and availability were significant sources of risk. In response, Microsoft formed a centralized senior energy team to address this newly elevated strategic issue and develop a comprehensive plan to mitigate risk. The team, comprising 14 experts in electricity markets, renewable energy, battery storage, and local generation (or “distributed energy”), was charged by corporate senior leadership with developing and executing the firm’s energy strategy. “Energy has become a C-suite issue,” Bernard says. “The CFO and president are now actively involved in our energy road map.”

If environment is a C-suite issue at Spotify, there’s no real evidence of it in Spotify’s annual report (but then there isn’t at the Mechanical Licensing Collective, either). “Environment” word search reveals that at Spotify, the environment is “economic”, “credit”, and above all “rapidly changing.” Not “dirty”–or “clean” for that matter.

The fact appears to be that Spotify isn’t doing anything special and nobody seems to want to talk about it. But wait, you say–what about the sainted Music Climate Pact? (Increasingly looking like a PR effort worthy of Edward Bernays.) Guess who hasn’t signed up to the MCP? Any streaming service as far as I can tell. There is a “Standard Commitment Letter” that participants are supposed to sign up to but I wasn’t able to read it. Want to guess why?

That’s right. You know who wants to know what you’re up to.

If you haven’t heard much about streaming’s negative effects on the environment, don’t be surprised. It’s not a topic that’s a great conversation starter and very few journalists seem to have any interest in the subject at all. I wonder why.

But if you’re an artist who is concerned about the impact of streaming your music on the environment or an investor trying to see your way through the ESG investment, this should give you a few questions to ask about Spotify’s ESG score. And if that slipped by you, don’t feel bad–Blackrock reportedly holds 3.8 million shares of Spotify that are worth less all the time, so they didn’t catch it either. And Blackrock coined the phrase.

Next: Spotify’s “Social” Fail: Rogan, Royalties and The Uyghurs

Frozen Mechanicals Crisis: 2nd Comment of @helienne @davidclowery @theblakemorgan Opposing Conflict of Interest in Frozen Mechanicals–‘Let the future have a vote’

SECOND REOPENING PERIOD COMMENTS OF HELIENNE LINDVALL, DAVID LOWERY AND BLAKE MORGAN 

            Helienne Lindvall, David Lowery and Blake Morgan (collectively, the “Writers”) thank the Judges for the opportunity and respectfully submit the following comments responding to the Copyright Royalty Judges’ notice (“Second Notice”) soliciting comments on additional materials (“Reply”) received by the Judges[1] from the National Music Publishers Association, Nashville Songwriters Association International, Sony Music Entertainment, UMG Recordings, Inc. and Warner Music Group Corp. (collectively, the “Majors”)[2] regarding the so-called [frozen] “Subpart B” statutory rates and terms[3] relating to the making and distribution of physical or digital phonorecords of nondramatic musical works in the docket referenced above (“Proceeding”). 

The Writers previously submitted comments[4] (“Prior Comment”) responding to the Judges’ notice[5] (“First Notice”) soliciting comments on the Major’s proposed purported settlement (the “Proposed Settlement”)[6] of the Subpart B rates.  The Writers along with attorney Gwendolyn Seale[7] attempted to submit additional comments in response to the Majors’ filing but were not able to timely file that response.[8]  The Writers appreciate the Judges’ decision to reopen the comment period in order to afford the public, and those that would be bound by the rates and terms set by the Proposed Settlement,[9] an opportunity to comment on those additional materials filed by the Majors and to further participate in the rulemaking.[10]

I.  SUMMARY
            As a general comment on the record to date in Phonorecords IV, the Writers are mystified by the histrionics that have become associated with this Proceeding both on the record and in the press. A voluntary negotiation is just a deal, often made by people who are paid to always be closing. The Writers believe that Congress intended that voluntary negotiation produce a fair result on a reasonable timetable.  

 While not directly at issue in the reopened comment period, what is clearly the case is that the settlement of the Subpart B rates has unnecessarily become a major gating item for the streaming side of this Proceeding, geese and ganders being what they are.  Despite the extensive voluntary negotiation period for the Subpart B rates by the Majors, the Judges—and, frankly, songwriters around the world–are presented instead with a cornucopia of chaos across the board; the cherry on top is the frozen mechanicals crisis.  However, in this season of hope the Writers are confident that the Judges will lead us all out of this daunting situation.

The Writers are not interested in the personalities, the arm-waving or the finger-pointing.  They are interested in the results, particularly because neither they nor anyone they authorized had input into the negotiation that produced either the Proposed Settlement or the impasse.

There is at least one easy way to fix this and recognize the intrinsic value of songs:  Raise the statutory rate proposal for Subpart B configurations in at least some relation to the streaming rate increase.  A song is no less valuable because of the medium in which it is exploited.[11] 

As the Writers will argue, just like the voluntary agreement on Subpart B that led to this impasse was reached by the Majors, those same parties can go back to the drawing board to reach an appropriate conclusion with a higher Subpart B rate.  

Neither the public nor the songwriters are well served (and frankly neither are the Judges) by thrashing about and waiving arms. This may serve well the people who are paid by the hour but it hasn’t served people who are paid by the song.  At all.  “Victory” without winning may pass for success in Washington, but it does not in the writer room or at a songwriter’s kitchen table.

            The Proposed Settlement is a crystallization of everything that is wrong with the licensing and payment practices that have arisen under the compulsory license regime where no is yes, more is less and the Kool-Aid whispers “Drink Me.”  

While the Writers will focus in this comment on the frozen mechanicals issue that has become emblematic of the current crisis, it must be said that the decade-plus MOU [black box] agreements are a backward looking and inequitable insider arrangement that permits a mindset of sloppiness and a “kick the can down the road” mentality that debilitates the entire music publishing business.[12]  It’s no accident that the Mechanical Licensing Collective—run by largely the same cast of characters under a jaw-dropping Congressional governance mandate—has been sitting on $424,000,000 of other peoples’ money for nine months during a pandemic with no visible compliance with another Congressional mandate of paying songwriters correctly in Title I of the Music Modernization Act.[13]  

            The MLC and the sequence of MOUs are both descended from the same ancestors a generation ago.  Each have essentially the same business model and each are somehow inexplicably viewed as a “win” for the songwriters.  The irony of splicing the genetic code of the ancien régime MOU [black box insider settlements] to the future is not lost on anyone.  If the failure to match money and songs in the MOU process is still a problem after fifteen years as well as the much-trumpeted Title I of the Music Modernization Act, it’s not the horse’s fault.  It’s the rider’s.

            It would be a real pity for the CRB to perpetuate this unfairness by adopting the Proposed Settlement.  With respect, it is bad law, bad policy, and a failure to even try to bend the arc of the moral universe.  Conversely, rejecting the Proposed Settlement would provide the kind of steely oversight tragically lacking in the current regime.  Please let the future have a vote, just once.

            The Writers object to the Proposed Settlement for the following reasons and respectfully suggest constructive alternatives.  The gravamen of our objection is that (1) the Subpart B rates have already been frozen since 2006 and extending the freeze another five years is unjust; (2) no evidence has been publicly produced in the Proceeding that justifies or even explains extending the proposed freeze aside from the connection to the memorandum of understanding in the MOU4 late fee waiver (“MOU”), a document that the Majors only recently disclosed in their Reply; (3) very large numbers of songwriters and copyright owners of various domiciles around the world and national origins are unlikely to even know this Proceeding is happening and there still is no evidence that the unrepresented have appointed any of the participants to act on their behalf or were asked to consent to the purported settlement before the fact even if they were members of these organizations aside from the respective board of directors; (4) physical sales are still a vital part of songwriter revenue (which the Writers documented in the Prior Comment[14]); and (5) there are many just alternatives available to the Judges without applying an unjust settlement to the world’s songwriters who are strangers to the Proposed Settlement and in particular the MOU component (as the MOU will likely require membership in the NMPA to benefit consistent with prior MOUs).

[Read the full-length original filing here.]


[1] 86 FR 58626.

            [2] NMPA, NSAI, Sony Music Entertainment, UMG Recordings, Inc. and Warner Music Group Comments in Further Support of the Settlement of Statutory Royalty Rates and Terms for Subpart B Configurations, Determination of Royalty Rates and Terms for Making and Distributing Phonorecords (Phonorecords IV), Copyright Royalty Board (Aug. 10, 2021).

            [3] 37 C.F.R. §385.11(a).

            [4] Comments of Helienne Lindvall, David Lowery and Blake Morgan, Determination of Rates and Terms for Making and Distributing Phonorecords (Phonorecords IV) (July 26, 2021) available at https://app.crb.gov/document/download/25533.

[5] 86 FR 33601.

            [6] Motion To Adopt Settlement of Statutory Royalty Rates and Terms for Subpart B Configurations, Docket No. 21-CRB-0001-PR (2023-2027).

            [7]  Ms. Seale does not otherwise join in this comment.  We understand she is filing a separate comment regarding the additional materials.

            [8] The Writers’ reply was posted on The Trichordist website available at https://thetrichordist.com/2021/08/16/frozenmechanicals-crisis-unfiled-supplemental-comments-of-helienne-lindvall-davidclowery-theblakemorgan-and-sealeinthedeal/.  Parts of that unfiled comment are included in this comment.

[9] See 17 USC 801(b)(7)(a)(i).

                  [10]  As with the Writers prior submission in response to the First Notice, the Writers focus in this comment almost entirely on the Subpart B rates applicable to physical carriers under 37 C.F.R. §385.11(a).  

            [11] The Judges no doubt will be told many stories about how Subpart B configurations are not meaningful sales compared to streaming so rates deserve to be frozen.  This is a novel copyright argument without a statutory basis.  The theory is also not based on accurate facts as the Writers discuss extensively in the Prior Comment at paragraph 5 and will not repeat here.

            [12] There is a growing backlash to decades of delaying definitive action on song metadata and songwriter payments such as Credits Due campaign of the Ivors Academy and Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus.  See generally Chris Cooke, PPL Backs Björn Ulvaeus’s Credits Due Campaign, Complete Music Update (Oct. 4, 2021) available at https://completemusicupdate.com/article/ppl-backs-bjorn-ulvaeuss-credits-due-campaign/

            [13] See, e.g., H. Rep. 115-651 (115th Cong. 2nd Sess. April 25, 2018) at 5; S. Rep. 115-339 (115th Cong. 2nd Sess. Sept. 17, 2018) at 5 (“The Committee welcomes the creation of a new musical works database that is mandated by the legislation….Music metadata has more often been seen as a competitive advantage for the party that controls the database, rather than as a resource for building an industry on.” (emphasis added)).

            [14] See Prior Comment at 16.

Frozen Mechanicals Crisis: Monica Corton Tells Copyright Royalty Board that Without Parity, the Music Ecosystem Will Fail

Honorable Judges:

My name is Monica Corton, and I am the CEO and Founder of Go to ElevenEntertainment, a newly formed independent music publishing company that is funded. I have been in the music publishing business for over thirty years, twenty- seven of which were spent as the Senior Executive Vice President of Creative Affairs & Licensing at Next Decade Entertainment. My experience is in all areas of music licensing, registrations, and royalty payments, and my former clients included the catalogs of the band Boston, Harry Belafonte, Vic Mizzy (the “Addams Family Theme” and “Green Acres Theme”), Sammy Hagar, and many more.

It is my understanding that the CRB judges are being asked to accept a Motion to Adopt a freeze or a non-rate increase for all mechanical licensing uses for physical phonorecords, i.e., CDs and vinyl, permanent digital downloads, ringtones and music bundles (whenmultiple songs are downloaded in groups) for the Rate Period of 2023 to 2027. The rates for these types of uses have been frozen and have not increased for any music publisher or songwriter since 2006. In the past, the National Music Publishers Association (“NMPA”) has explained these freezes as a necessary component to their negotiation for an increase in the digital streaming rates for mechanical licenses. For many years (2006-2021), I have gone along with this explanation, but after fifteen (“15”) years of having noincrease on any physical product or digital downloads, I now believe it is completely unfair and no longer justifiable for music publishers and songwriters, particularly the

independents and DIY creators (do-it-yourself), to have been denied an increase in these rates after fifteen (15) years of allowing record labels to get away without paying any increase whatsoever, and now face being blocked from a raise for another five (“5”) years.

I originally wrote comments to you on July 26, 2021, and I have included thosecomments below. As there was an extension provided, I felt I should augment my former submission to you with a practical reason for why I believe that physical and digital download mechanical royalty rates should increase, at least by a cost of living, forsongwriters and publishers for the Rate Period 2023-2027.

The one format in physical product that seems to be surging now is vinyl. If one visitsthe Amazon.com shop, new releases of vinyl are selling anywhere from

$24.98 to $49.99 at retail. Generally, the wholesale selling price for a label is half of the retail selling price. Therefore, in this scenario, the labels are making anywhere from $12.49 to $24.99 per unit. Under the current physical mechanical rate which would stay the same if you decide not to increase the royalty rate for physical copies and digital downloads, a publisher would be paid $.91 per record with a ten (10) song cap (standard practice) for the right to use all the songs on that release. However, most singer/songwriters have what is called a controlled composition clause in their recording agreement which requires that they agree to a reduced rate of 75% of the statutory rate with a cap of ten (10) songs. This means that the real rate for most singer/songwriters onan album is $.6825 for all the songs on any given album.

Therefore, the label is making anywhere from $11.8075 to $24.3075 of which a small portion will be paid to the artist for artist royalties and some portion will be paid for the expense of making the record and distributing it. The songwriter and the publisher will thereafter, divide the $.6825 in half so that the songwriter will eventually receive $.3412 for the ENTIRE ALBUM of songs, often recording and releasing more than ten songs because creatives tend to release 12-14 songs on any given album which further reducesthe mechanical rate per song.

I ask you, does it seem fare to you that the record label should make $11.875 to

$24.3075 per record and the singer/songwriter who wrote EVERY SONG ON THE ALBUM will make $.3412?

Songwriters rarely get a say in any of these hearings. Digital rates have devastated whole swaths of our creative songwriter community. Please consider that after fifteen (15) years,it’s time to increase the physical mechanical rate and the digital

download rate for songwriters and publishers. We must create some kind of parity for songwriters in the sale of physical product and digital downloads, or our musicecosystem will begin to fail.

Best wishes, 

Monica Corton CEO & Founder

Go to Eleven Entertainment

[Read the original comment here]

Frozen Mechanicals Crisis: Independent Publisher Lynn Robin Green Tells Copyright Royalty Judges how they threaten Survival

President Lynn Robin Green
LANSDOWNE MUSIC-WINSTON MUSIC PUBLISHERS
BLOOR MUSIC-HOFFMAN HOUSE MUSIC

PO BOX 1415 BURBANK, CA 91507

I have been a Music Publisher 45 years and the FREEZING of the statutory mechanical rate which hasn’t been raised in many many years CAUSES us undue continual financial hardship.

The low streaming rates have decimated our earnings for my Writers and Administrated Publisher Clients for the last six years and have have forced us into a corner financially to try to make up for this deep loss of revenue. I administrate also 39 Publishing firms here and these streaming losses are continual.

The Mechanical sales and Sync licensing fees are our only solid source of revenue to try to compensate for these deep losses. Its imperative that THE MECHANICAL RATES BE unfrozen asap and REMADE for REALISTIC FACTUAL inflation considerations of 2021 and for a willing seller/buyer in todays actual market.

We can’t survive if this RATE of 9.1 cts IS NOT raised and adjusted FAIRLY by the CRB for these very urgently important considerations. The Parties who are trying to freeze the rates here are highly conflicted and their sole interests are purely as Parties to Technology deals- and are self projected- and they SIMPLY violate any FAIRNESS OF MECH RATES FOR ALL PUBLISHERS AND SONGWRITERS concerned.

Please listen, please consider the Creators and the Independent Music Publishers who would suffer undue catastrophe level FURTHER financial loss if that RATE is DEEMED frozen for any more additional years whatsoever. WE absolutely URGENTLY need this rate increase NOW, its beyond crucial to our way of business and I implore the CRB to listen to the Independents and Creators and KNOW the truth and hard reality of what THIS important decision represents for our future. 

WE MUST RAISE the mechanical rates, and help save this business of publishing from being plundered for large Corporate interests, WITHOUT FAIR or competitive compensation for small independent businesses.

Sincerely 

LR Green

[Read original comment as filed]