Welcome to 2016

Post by Allen Bargfrede, Executive Director of Rethink Music.

Welcome to the music industry in 2016.

Last year brought a lot of optimism and genuine enthusiasm for new ideas for the music industry, supported in many cases by folks who haven’t always been quick to embrace new technologies.

2015 also saw the continuation of a familiar narrative around low payments to songwriters and recording artists by music streaming services. Adele chose to withhold her new album “25” from streaming services for several weeks, instead using a “windowing” release strategy similar to that used in the film industry. It worked, with more than 4 million combined copies sold in the first week in the U.S. and U.K., smashing the previous first week sales records set by N*Sync and Oasis, respectively.

Meanwhile, my students and artist clients ask what they can do to stand out, with so much additional content coming onto digital services each week. The democratization of music via the Internet has led to a fractured landscape for creators who must then operate in an oligopolistic market.

The release of our Rethink Music Fair Music report last year exposed many of the difficulties with today’s evolving music distribution systems, specifically around (1) low payments, (2) rights transparency, and (3) revenue transparency.  Since the report’s release, progress has been made on all fronts:

The Copyright Office now has an open call for public comments on the safe harbor provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which protects some services from infringement liability. (Click here to see more information on commenting.) This review means that regulators are actively paying attention to the much-improved ability of services to identify and pay for content they are hosting via identification technologies.

Meanwhile, France made news in October when they announced a memorandum of understanding for the fair development of online music signed by many different stakeholders. Never mind that stakeholder hands were forced by the French Minister of Culture, who threatened to legislate in the absence of an agreement – I prefer to look upon the agreement as progress that should be accepted in any form.

And there has been development on the rights transparency aspect as well. Spotify recently announced plans to build a comprehensive, authoritative database to properly license and pay publishing royalties. (They’ve also been sued now, at least twice, for failing to properly account for mechanical royalties). Kobalt announced the formation of their new global collecting society, AMRA, and Section 115 reform (compulsory mechanical licensing for digital services) continues to be a hot topic in the U.S.

These are challenging times, but from where I sit, I see potential everywhere in the new year. My recent work with Benji Rogers on his Fair Trade Music Blockchain format anchored to virtual reality shows real potential for the adoption of new licensing and tracking technology. Imogen Heap recently released her Mycelia project with Ujo, and numerous other companies, ranging from labels to collecting societies, have technology initiatives underway to drive substantive progress to clean up the existing data mess.

Virtual and augmented reality will be the other hot topic this year, with promoters recognizing its capability for the digital expansion of tours. And fair remuneration for all parties, including creators, distributors, and the intermediaries like labels and publishers who work so hard to promote the content, should continue to be the goal of everyone. Will this be the year for that?

Allen Bargfrede