Press reports indicate that the Department of Justice is nearing the completion of its study of whether to suggest the revision of the antitrust consent decrees that have bound ASCAP and BMI for over a half century (see our summary of the issues that DOJ is considering here). Much of the impetus behind this review comes from claims from songwriters and their associated publishing companies that they simply are not receiving enough money from digital music services. In the music industry trade press, one can barely go a day without seeing some article about a songwriter whose song was played a million times on a digital music service like Pandora or Spotify, with the artist only receiving some relatively small amount of royalty revenue from that seemingly large number of plays. In looking at this question, I think that there are a number of issues that are misunderstood – perhaps the greatest being the meaning of big numbers – what is really meant when a song is played a million times by a digital music service. I’ve moderated two panels in the last month where royalty experts debated royalties generally and this topic specifically, and I will be moderating another at the RAIN Summit West in Las Vegas on Sunday. Before that discussion, and for those who won’t be at the RAIN Conference, I thought that it would be worth exploring some of this confusion about this issue here.
Last month, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust Subcommittee held a hearing on the DOJ’s review of the antitrust consent decrees (video of the hearing, and written witness statements, are available here). During the course of the hearing, a songwriter representative, when asked by a Senator about the alleged impact of digital royalties on the songwriting community, made the assertion that when his song was played a million times on terrestrial radio, he could pay his bills, but when that song was played a million times on a digital service, he received only a few hundred dollars. While this kind of claim is made every day by songwriter representatives, and has contributed to the examination of music royalties being conducted by Congress (see our articles here and here), the Department of Justice and the Copyright Office (see our article here), in many ways, these claims seem to evidence a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of digital services. It is truly a comparison of apples and oranges (or maybe apples and watermelons might be more appropriate) that has distorted the conversation about royalties. The claim was challenged at the Judiciary Committee hearing by a representative of Pandora, who pointed out that the million people reached by the million spins of a record on Pandora is the equivalent audience reached by something like 16 spins on a New York radio station. I thought that this exchange was crucial to the understanding of the issues involved in the examination of changes to the ASCAP and BMI royalty structure, yet I saw little or no coverage of the issue in press reports after the hearing.
Continue Reading How Misunderstandings about Big Numbers Distort the Debate over Songwriter Digital Music Royalties – As the DOJ Readies its Recommendations for Reform of the ASCAP and BMI Consent Decrees