treble staff

Singing For The Sharks

 MGM-Sony-Streisand Scoring Stage in Los Angeles

Think of a restaurant you’ve stumbled in to where it turns out that all of the staff are trained in intellectual property litigation. Get ready to argue over the amount of the tip. 

Research on a book project has recently taken me to the far and cavernous precincts of music licensing, with topics like copyrighting songs, payment to play music in businesses, and collecting royalties from others who perform ‘covers.’  I have only one word for the experience of wading in to this byzantine subject:  Yikes!  My advice is that if you have the urge to sing in the shower, for your own good it would be good to do it sotto voce.  Anyone could be listening.  And you could be in even more hot water for not clearing the song with the publisher, a record company, or the performance rights organization that represents the songwriter.

No wonder there has been a spate of recent stories about the questionable mental health of musicians trying to survive within the music industry.  It’s an enviable goal to build a career in music.  But it is clearly not for the faint of heart.  Think of a restaurant you’ve stumbled into where it turns out that all of the staff are trained in intellectual property litigation. It may not be your best meal.  And the tip will be a matter of contention.

All of these is both a surprise and a disappointment, since music remains one of the happier experiences of living our lives.  It’s little wonder that the legendary Quincy Jones–the composer, musician and world-class producer–thinks of the business side of his work as a “disaster.”

Taylor Swift has recently been doing battle with her record label and publisher, Big Machine.  They own her masters and the copyrights to most of her older music, and she wants them back.  With some justification her label argues that they invested heavily in her when she was a young teen starting out.  But now, buying back the rights to her music outright–if she succeeds–with probably run into a few hundred million dollars.  In the meantime, she’s released a music video to torment her music-mogul opponents, Scooter Braun and Scott Borchetta.

To be sure, Ms. Swift will land on her feet.  She has loyal and vocal fans.  And it’s certainly easier to admire her as a performer than a relatively faceless investment firm, the Carlyle Group, which has an interest in Big Machine.  In addition, music lovers also love to hate record labels.  It seems like it has always been that way at least since the days of Napster.  The big music groups that own the labels are often seen as taking over copyrights representing the labor of their very human musical “partners,” only to fail to deliver the promotion and success they promised in exchange.

Swift has obviously done well with Big Machine, but she wants more control of what and where she performs. However, a more typical case is perhaps the jazz/classical cellist, Zoe Keating, who is continually underwhelmed by her annual royalty statement from Spotify–now the largest streamer in the music business.  According to The Guardian, in 2018 she received all of $0.0054 per play from the streaming service.  Still, Spotify complains that they can’t make any real money.

It’s obvious only the biggest mega-stars receive royalties sufficient to live on. Most need to tour relentlessly, where ticket and incidental sales of extras can net enough income to get by.

Many of us are fascinated by this industry because its products are often so great.  But it seems to resemble something like a big and colorful aquarium: better to enjoy it from the outside than to swim with the sharks inside.