The Evolving Music Ecosystem Conference: Day One Recap

The following post comes from Bradfield Biggers, a graduate of Boston College Law School and Founder & CEO of Timshel Inc., a music fintech company that provides data-driven cashflow solutions to musical artists in Los Angeles, California. This is the first of three posts (see day two recap and day three recap) summarizing our three-day The Evolving Music Ecosystem conference that was held online from George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School on September 9-11, 2020.

By Bradfield Biggers

On September 9-11, 2020, the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) hosted The Evolving Music Ecosystem conference online from George Mason University Antonin Scalia Law School in Arlington, Virginia. The conference featured a keynote address by singer, songwriter, and author Rosanne Cash.

The past year has seen major changes to the music ecosystem and the laws and policies integral to its viability. For example, while the Music Modernization Act (MMA) provided a much-needed update to the way artists’ creative contributions are recognized and supported in the digital age, debates over royalties, infringement, piracy, and new distribution models remain. Diverse issues surrounding ownership and control of data, music festival arrangements, and the nature of artists’ roles in the gig economy have also made headlines. Despite encouraging steps forward and seemingly unlikely partnerships, arriving at a place of balance in music—where respect for artists and others on the music production side is just as important as facilitating innovative models for listener access—requires more work and cooperation.

This unique conference continued a dialogue on the music ecosystem begun by CPIP Executive Director Sean O’Connor while at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle. In its inaugural year in the D.C. area, the conference aimed to bring together musicians, music fans, lawyers, artist advocates, business leaders, government policymakers, and anyone interested in supporting thriving music ecosystems in the U.S. and beyond.

OPENING REMARKS & INTRODUCTIONS

CPIP Director of Copyright Research and Policy Sandra Aistars opened the conference by noting the aptness of coming together (albeit online) for music during a time when the global COVID-19 crisis has shut down much of the world. Prof. Aistars highlighted how music is a tool for eliciting solidarity during difficult times, and our current global pandemic is no exception. Prof. Aistars described how earlier this year, Italians banded together to play with and for each other from the balconies of their homes during the peak of their COVID-19 national lockdown. She found this brought home the importance of nourishing the music ecosystems that, in turn, nourish our communities.

Prof. O’Connor also wanted to emphasize that The Evolving Music Ecosystem would not be your garden-variety music law and policy conference. Where many music conferences fall into the mold of offering panel after panel of esoteric copyright infringement discussions, Prof. O’Connor wanted this conference to take a holistic approach that covered the entire music ecosystem. And while admitting there would be panels covering the copyright infringement landscape, his intention for this conference was to delve deep into pressing issues for working songwriters, performers, musicians, and other music stakeholders. By aligning with the broader music ecosystem, he hoped this conference would empower not just citywide music ecosystems, but also those spanning the national and the globe.

SESSION 1: IMPLEMENTING THE MUSIC MODERNIZATION ACT

The Music Modernization Act (MMA) is a revolutionary legislative bill that was the result of complex negotiations and compromises among songwriters, publishers, record labels, digital service providers (DSPs), and other music industry stakeholders. The MMA, among other things, set the framework for a new composition database and blanket mechanical licensing system, and designated the Mechanical Licensing Collective, Inc. (MLC) to administer it. Although the MMA was enacted in 2018, discussions of how this licensing system will be implemented continue to be prominent in music industry and academic circles alike. With the MLC beginning to administer blanket licenses under this new licensing regime on January 1, 2021, there is no better time to discuss the implementation of this legislation.

The panel included Danielle Aguirre from the National Music Publishers Association, Adam Gorgoni from the Songwriters of North America, Lisa Selden from Spotify, and Regan Smith of the United States Copyright Office. The panel was moderated by Prof. Mark Schultz of the University of Akron School of Law.

Danielle Aguirre set the stage for the panel by offering background information about how the MLC will administer mechanical licenses as a blanket license and how revolutionary this is in light of the old system of individual licensing. Ms. Aguirre explained that while digital service providers (DSPs), such as Spotify and Google, will fund the MLC, it will be the publishers and songwriters that will actually govern the administration of their royalties. She hopes this separation of funding and administration will align the incentives of DSPs and creators, as well as offer trust and transparency for all music stakeholders. Ms. Aguirre believes that the data quality initiatives and software the MLC is developing internally will allow the MLC licensing system to run as smoothly as possible when it launches at the end of this year.

Regan Smith then offered her perspective from the U.S. Copyright Office. Ms. Smith explained that the MMA created criteria for the MLC to operate, but it also went on to grant the Office discretion to regulate issues or schemes that may arise during the MLC’s implementation that were not contemplated by the MMA drafters. Consequently, the Office has been working with all music industry stakeholders to ensure the MLC comes together smoothly. In addition to the regulatory function, Ms. Smith said that the Office focuses on providing educational programs and materials to educate artists and the public about the MLC.

Ms. Smith was followed by songwriter and Songwriters of North America (SONA) founder Adam Gorgoni, who discussed how the previous licensing regime was unsustainable for artists, spoke on the importance of educating artists about music metadata, and provided insight into how SONA represented artists in the MMA negotiations. Reflecting on the MMA negotiations, Mr. Gorgoni recognized that the legislation was not perfect and that tradeoffs were made, but he was confident that the most important points for artists were included. Ultimately, Mr. Gorgoni found one phrase regarding the creation and negotiation of the MLC to be the most applicable: “Don’t make the perfect be the enemy of the good.” This mantra resonated with rest of the panelists.

Lisa Selden then offered her opinion about the negotiations and implementation of the MMA through the perspective of the licensees. In addition to her work at Spotify, Ms. Selden represents Spotify on the board of directors of the Digital Licensee Coordinator (DLC), which is a nonprofit entity that coordinates and represents the interests of DSPs. The DLC board members include representatives from other prominent DSPs, such as Apple, Amazon, Google, and Pandora. Ms. Selden emphasized the importance of the DLC in relation to the MLC, but she also discussed the challenges of creating a single voice from the diverse motivations of each individual digital DSP.

SESSION 2: THE CHANGING NATURE OF SOUND RECORDING RIGHTS 

The sound recording category of music copyrights has been more limited in some ways than the composition category. Sound recordings received no federal protection before 1972 and then afterwards that protection did not apply to terrestrial radio broadcasts. The recent Music Modernization Act (MMA) extended a measure of protection to pre-1972 sound recordings, while proposed legislation would allow sound recording owners to seek compensation from terrestrial radio stations for public performances of their works similar to the system for digital webcasters and streaming. The panel, moderated by Prof. Steven Jamar of Howard University School of Law, discussed the current state of sound recordings, their curious history under U.S. law, and their future in the digital streaming age.

Producer Mikael “Count” Eldridge of Vertebrae Productions opened the panel with a sobering call for an artist-first focus to music industry discourse. He explained how the media and music industry often marginalizes the financial struggles of individual creators when it focuses purely on the macroeconomics of the touring and recording businesses. He believes this flaunting of aggregate music statistics—driven by the top 1% of artists—misleads the public as to the status of artists’ livelihoods and that this in turn perpetuates the myth that the artists on streaming services could earn a living by simply selling t-shirts and touring. Mr. Eldridge stressed that if we cannot increase streaming subscription fees to increase royalty rates for artists, we will lose the music and voices of thousands of independent artists who provide invaluable political and cultural contributions. He concluded by highlighting that many of these issues for independent artists are tackled in his forthcoming documentary Unsound, for which he is currently curating a lecture circuit tour.

Agreeing with Mr. Eldridge’s push for artist-first discourse, SoundExchange’s Brieanne Jackson gave a brief history of how her organization is empowering the lives of artists with its collection and distribution of digital performance royalties. Ms. Jackson then emphasized how SoundExchange not only fuels the lives of modern artists but was also instrumental in getting legacy artists compensation for their pre-1972 sound recordings. Before the MMA was enacted in 2018, artists prior to 1972 received no federal copyright protection or statutory compensation for their sound recordings. However, due in part to SoundExchange’s advocacy, pre-1972 sound recordings now receive protections under the MMA. Today, SoundExchange continues to push for artist sound recording rights in the U.S. by advocating for the Ask Musicians for Music Act (AM-FM Act), which was introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives in late 2019. Ms. Jackson explained that the AM-FM Act would finally provide sound recording rights owners with compensation when their music is played over terrestrial radio.

Attorney Eric Schwartz of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp carried forward Ms. Jackson’s conversation of pre-1972 sound recordings by diving into how Congress came to include federal protections in the MMA for pre-1972 recordings, as well as its implications for artists. Mr. Schwartz explained that before the MMA, pre-1972 sound recordings were only protected by state and common law instead of federal law. This meant that while pre-1972 sound recordings did not generate digital performance royalties from streaming companies, rights owners had hoped they could use their state rights to pursue more effective infringement actions for online piracy directly, rather than through the broken notice-and-takedown and safe harbors regime of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). However, once the Second Circuit held that the DMCA safe harbors applied to pre-1972 recordings, artists and policymakers began to pursue a digital performance right for rightsholders, which manifested in the MMA.

Mr. Schwartz next highlighted that recent legislation in Canada, as a result of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), and a judgment by the European Court of Justice will provide U.S.-based artists the same rights (e.g., national treatment) that Canadians and EU citizens enjoy in their own territories resulting in significant new payments to American producers and performers from these territories. Lastly, he mentioned that the U.S. Copyright Office has proposed a new rule to allow certain artists to register entire albums of up to twenty songs at once, which will greatly cut down the expense and headache of registering copyrights for multiple works.

The final panelist was Todd Dupler of the Recording Academy, who discussed the implications of the MMA’s new “willing-buyer-willing-seller” standard for rate court proceedings and the introduction of the AM-FM Act. Mr. Dupler explained that before the MMA, the standard used to set the statutory royalty prohibited judges from considering what a licensee might pay for a license in the open market. As a result, this standard prevented artists from receiving just compensation for their work. However, with the MMA’s new standard, judges can consider how the fast-paced technology market values music and what a potential licensee may be willing to pay for using music. Mr. Dupler concluded with highlighting the Recording Academy’s advocacy of the pending AM-FM Act, which would provide artists with an additional source of revenue by creating a performance right in sound recordings for terrestrial broadcasts. Importantly, this sound recording performance right would require the radio industry to finally compensate recording artists for their music. However, Mr. Dupler stressed that if artists are going to pass this transformative legislation, they and the public need to “speak out and speak up.”