The 19th SF MusicTech Summit brought hundreds of musicians, entrepreneurs, publishers, developers, and attorneys together at the Hotel Kabuki in San Francisco this week to discuss and debate the ongoing challenges and trends of the industry.
Despite divergent backgrounds and ideals, creative artists and technical startup founders, business-minded label reps and progressive investors united over a common love of music and desire to bridge the music-tech landscape. It was a chance to cultivate change and to “meet, greet, and do deals,” as summit organizer Brian Zisk put it.
The daylong gathering offered an abundance of presentations and panels on topics from copyright and licensing to big data and blockchain. Speakers represented the gamut of companies including YouTube, Amazon, THX, Gracenote, SoundHound, TiVo, Warner Music Group, and more. Highlights included a lecture on streaming’s monetary impact on artists and a discussion on the evolving role of record labels in the digital era.
In his talk titled “Creating New Revenue for Artists in a Streaming World,” Dave Allen, director of artist and music industry advocacy at NORTH Music, said musicians are taking on more functions themselves and producing more experiential pieces, with technology playing an influential role. Independent artists have increasingly turned to sites like Soundcloud as the preferred method to release their music and build their catalogs. Allen cited Jace Clayton, aka DJ /rupture, who worries that online platforms, while accessible, can be unstable. “Whether Soundcloud can last another 10 years remains to be seen, but the moral of the struggle is clear — as digital culture becomes more tied to accessible platforms where it flourishes, there is always a risk of it disappearing forever,” Clayton has said.
Allen referenced a recently-coined industry term, “the album equivalent unit,” which states 1,500 streams of a song is equal to one album sale. This conversion paints a glum picture for rising singers, songwriters, and musicians.
“What is going to happen to upcoming independent artists who don’t get that kind of streaming?” Allen said. “No other art form is as appreciated as broadly, as passionately, as music is on a daily basis around the world. But there is still a huge gap in income equality if you can’t get those very large streams.”
Artist attorney Jacqueline Sabec, a partner at King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, said despite the hype surrounding streaming, the majority of people still listen to music through radio. As moderator of a panel called “Revolution or Evolution? The Future of Record Labels,” she invited speakers on both sides to comment.
Max Weinberg, senior director of promotional marketing at Geffen Records, said his label invests time and money to develop artists and offers invaluable support from branding to touring, which can make the difference in propelling an artist’s rise.
“There is a lot of competition out there. The great thing about having a major label behind you is that we have the resources. We have marketing. We have infrastructure for videos,” Weinberg said. “There are not a lot of songs on the radio right now that aren’t on a major label…and that’s really how you break a song into absolute Top 40 mainstream, is still radio. We can help get to that point.”
Venture capitalist Ryan Walsh of Floodgate agreed radio is still an important factor but said artists are making a sacrifice that is not in their best interest in order to get their music out there.
“Everybody wants their art to be heard. Nobody gives a shit if it’s on the radio or the internet, so right now the trade-off for listens and for fans is happening on social media,” Walsh said. “In exchange for reach you are giving away your art. It used to be in exchange for your art you would be paid….There is an exchange happening there that does not favor the overall advancement of culture over a long period of time.”
The “Hot Topics in Music Tech Law” panel discussed an agreement between the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and performing rights organizations (PROs) over decrees governing PRO operations. At issue is fractional licensing, including legalities surrounding the rights of split work, for example when one song is co-written by three artists. “You have the DOJ coming back and shocking everyone by saying that any rights organization — ASCAP, BMI, or SESAC — is charged with issuing a nonexclusive license and can do it for the whole song, even if they only represent one of the writers and that has created this big storm in the industry,” said attorney William Hochberg, a partner at Greenberg Glusker.
In a separate panel titled “Licensing Deals: Getting the Music Rights You Need,” speakers said fragmented rights distributed over many rights holders and disparate or missing information regarding ownership can make the process to license music complex and lengthy. It could involve 10 to 20 transactions if required to go to several labels and publishers for clearance. Michael McCarty, business development officer at SOCAN, said having more comprehensive and authoritative databases would help streamline the process.
“Every time a song gets written, people are supposed to register it with the societies around the world, register the recording data with your publisher. But information that comes in is inconsistent, often conflicting. Things like spelling won’t even match up,” McCarty said. “At the end of the day, the worst driver of all this is the inability of songwriters to agree on song splits by the time a record comes out.”
McCarty believes labels should impose “a hard, fast, unbreakable rule” in which no record is released until all data is properly recorded but he acknowledged, “there would be a lot of turbulence from that.”
“One of the developments that is going to be happening is your workflow tools will be embedded with a process of harvesting the metadata and encourage you, if not force you, to put in all the metadata including titles, players, producers, writers,” McCarty said. “That’s probably what the ultimate answer is.”
In his presentation, Berklee Online professor Michael Harrington discussed sampling, copyright, and his work to help bring songs into the public domain. He noted “Happy Birthday” and “We Shall Overcome” are free to the public. “We are working to add ‘This Land Is Your Land,’” he said.
He cited the 2015 copyright infringement lawsuit in which a jury found that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke copied Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for their hit “Blurred Lines.” Many in the music industry argue the verdict poses a dangerous precedent and could potentially stifle artistic expression. Williams and Thicke filed an appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that heard oral arguments recently on October 6, 2017.
“Songwriters are scared to death because they are being sued over ‘it reminds me of’ standards. Everyone is nervous now because for once there has been a copyright infringement lawsuit with no sampling, no melody taken, no lyrics, no chords, no rhythmic features,” Harrington said. “This is a real damn disaster. I just hope we win on the appeal.”