Change How We Think First, Technology Second

Many years ago I was asked to discuss with the board of a trade association how the music industry was changing. One prominent executive summed up by saying “complexity has served us well”.

A few days ago Spotify’s James Duffett-Smith was moved to exclaim “music industry licensing and copyright structures are legendary in their complexity” in a blog post on how the company is responding to a mini-crisis in royalty payments. What bit Spotify was no conspiracy to defraud on a grand scale, just a simple expression of the inherent laziness of the music industry, and its abiding ability to move problems to where they are hardest to solve.

Let’s clear up some fundamentals before trying to understand how we might help ourselves towards a better and cleaner approach to bad data. Duffett-Smith oversells complexity. The basics of copyright and licensing are simple enough. Somebody writes a piece of music, somebody performs it, someone records it, and someone plays the record. A play of the recording usually involves permission and payment to the people who contributed. There are only a few permutations of this basic requirement, and in fact the music industry and governments have over time found ways to simply even further through block licensing and some limited, mostly benign monopolies.

Some complexity in how rights and contracts are managed however enables musicians to offer the right kind of permission at the best price, rather than having to accept a single flat rate for an impoverished range of uses. This finds its best expression in the use of music in films and advertising, where a great song can transform a movie or sell millions of pairs of jeans. Neither Spotify nor other music services, nor public radio and most TV producers, nor indeed bars, hairdressers, garages etc., have to worry about such matters. They get simple commercial or collective licences.

But even after 15 years of the data driven 21st century the music industry has not yet managed to create a coherent supply chain. So music services get their information about the music they play from two sources, which do not cooperate to ensure either accuracy or completeness. And it’s not because they can’t, it is because they won’t.

Those two sources of data are the owners of the recordings on one side, and the owners of the compositions on the other. For very good reasons the rights and royalties for these two groups have taken different paths; songs and records have a Venn diagram of interests, and they need some protection from each other, even though in many cases the individuals concerned are the same.

But when it comes to supply chain and data management, the industry has built silos. There is no matching of data between the two sides before the tracks are sent into the market, and no collaboration before the official release date to make sure the songs and songwriters for each recording are properly identified. And the law excuses this, fully transferring the risk to the point where the music is played.

Observers will note an irony here, as the music industry is notorious for its high profile plagiarism court cases. And added to this there is a fundamental right to attribution in most copyright codes (reinforced by an item in the UDHR) which is ignored on an industrial scale by the industry that most stands to benefit should it be universally respected.

I have argued elsewhere for a simple tweak to either law or industry practice that would see us indemnifying parties which rely on the data we provide about our music and our rights. This seems to me to be simple good sense. But there is an ethical dimension to the question too, for it is surely everyone’s right whether they are a musician, or any other kind of creator, to be identified with their work wherever it is performed or exhibited. And that is the change in thinking we need in the music industry, to a cultural norm where to hide or omit the creators’ due credit is seen as the shameful and lazy act that it truly is.

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