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 third of three posts (see day one recap and day two 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.
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.
SESSION 5: THE POWER OF DATA OWNERSHIP & ANALYTICS
Access to consumer data and the ability to process and respond to it is perhaps the most valuable component of our digital global ecosystems—no matter the industry. In the music business, collecting and analyzing data about listeners and their habits is occurring on a massive scale, and it’s informing the development of new business models and platforms. But questions of ownership and data sharing loom large, as musicians increasingly realize the value of knowing more about their fans. This panel discussed the current state of data collection and analytics in the music industry and explored ways that big data can foster creative ecosystems for all stakeholders. The panel was moderated by Prof. Sean Pager of Michigan State University College of Law.
Prof. Serona Elton from the University of Miami Frost School of Music kicked off the panel by describing the various places where artist data is aggregated, such as Spotify for Artists, Apple Music for Artists, Soundcharts, and collective management organizations (CMOs). Prof. Elton emphasized that while the number of data sources and quantity of data is extraordinary, the quality of data and specificity of the sources vary drastically. Moreover, while that data is accessible to everyone, the utility and granularity of the data will vary depending on who you are and how you want to use it.
Joshua Friedlander from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) then described the history of data tracking in the music industry. Data analytics became prominent in the 1990s when the RIAA was tracking roughly a billion point-of-sale transactions for recorded music annually. Nevertheless, those billion transactions have been dwarfed by the 1.5 trillion datapoints the RIAA now tracks annually in the U.S. alone. Moreover, where the data of the 1990s merely tracked when and where a record was sold, music industry data today is infinitely more complex. The music data we collect now includes the demographics of the consumer, how long they consumed the song, how often they consume it, and many more analytics that continue past the point of sale or download. As a result, record labels and marketing plans are so intricately related to data that few will approve a marketing campaign without data-backed guidance. Finally, Mr. Friedlander advised artists to retain only representatives who understand and use music data. Without looking at this data to understand the disposition of fans, contemporary artists will have a more difficult time achieving success in this data-driven music business.
Prof. Jake Linford from Florida University School of Law followed Mr. Friedlander’s discussion of the endless potential of artist data with a critical discussion of the safety and usefulness of current data collection and analytics efforts. Prof. Linford agrees that this extraordinarily granular data has unlimited potential, but he also thinks that not all aspects of its potential are positive. For example, the data technology companies collecting from your online consumption habits may be able to help artists and record labels understand what style of music is likely to create the next big pop song. Nevertheless, such data collection can also reveal potentially sensitive information about users, such as political affiliation and sexual orientation. Prof. Linford went on to discuss how this data can also allow AI-driven robots to create compositions without human intervention. While many are excited about the prospect of robot artists, this does create an interesting philosophical debate of what constitutes a creator.
Prof. Tonya Evans then led the panel into a discussion of disintermediation in the music industry. Prof. Evans explained how too many gatekeeper intermediaries in music needlessly create friction. She recommended that blockchain can streamline music distribution and remove many of these costly friction points, which would leave more money for artists. However, despite the promise of modern internet technologies, she recognized that the effectiveness of streamlining music distribution with current blockchain technology is curbed by the pervasiveness of piracy. Prof. Evans then suggested that a solution to music piracy—which could pave the way for efficient music licensing—could be through a disaggregated, decentralized network of blockchain payment and smart contracts. She anticipates that this sort of technological framework could provide the certainty and trust that music stakeholders need to distribute music securely and efficiently.
Finally, Will Page, the former Chief Economist of Spotify, began his presentation by rehashing and analyzing some of the main points made by the prior panelists. Particularly, he found blockchain to be a less capable solution in the music industry because of the issue of conflicting song metadata. Instead, he suggested the creation of a global repertoire database that would provide needed clarity in the music rights environment that regularly misattributes—or outright fails to attribute—artists to particular songs. Mr. Page later suggested that a country’s best solution to straightening out its broken song attribution status quo would be to create a natural monopoly to act as a central copyright depositor to coordinate with licensees. He then went on to stress the importance of music’s big data conversation, which he suggested should drive music innovation over longstanding industry customs. For example, the music industry continues to rely on country-level data for identifying fans because of longstanding touring customs, rather than the city-level data we have access to that is vastly superior due to its granularity.
SESSION 6: ARTIST MANAGEMENT & THE BUSINESS OF MUSIC
In today’s music business, when artists can act as their own producers, promoters, booking agents, managers, etc., is there still a need for traditional representation? What is the role of an artist manager? How has it evolved as the internet and interconnectivity have grown? This panel, moderated by Prof. Robert Heverly of Albany Law School, brought together artists, managers, lawyers, and venue owners to discuss the constant evolution of artist representation and the business of music.
Prof. Olufunmilayo Arewa from Temple University Beasley School of Law opened the panel by explaining how marginalized groups have been short-changed by record agreements in the past. Prof. Arewa described the financial discrimination and general injustice that has been felt by African American musicians for generations. For example, African American R&B artists between the 1960s and 1980s received royalty contract rates worth 20-60% of what were considered standard rates. Moreover, she noted that an additional consequence of failing to compensate African Americans and other groups fairly is that they cannot receive union sponsored health insurance. Finally, Prof. Arewa highlighted that considering the Black Lives Matter movement, there have been various proposals on how to make amends for past royalty rate inequities.
Attorney Lita Rosario carried on Prof. Arewa’s conversation about the injustices felt by marginalized groups by discussing her personal experience litigating unfair royalty agreements on behalf of African American artists. She then outlined her work in striking the down the “sharecropping” agreements between artists and record labels in favor of joint venture arrangements. Ms. Rosario noted that in the traditional sharecropping model, an artist’s royalties must recoup the recording costs before she is given any share of her royalties. In her proposed joint venture agreement, the artist would instead begin to earn royalties on the day the album breaks even. Also, Ms. Rosario noted, while it is a positive that major record labels have committed around $225 million to promote anti-racism, this gives little solace to those who continue to suffer from the chains of inequitable contracts.
Simon Tam of the award-winning band The Slants then brought home the conversation about systemic racism and marginalization in the music industry by speaking about his personal experience navigating injustice. He recalled an incident when a record executive offered his band a substantial record deal, so long as they replaced their Asian lead singer for a white person. The executive said this was because “Asians don’t sell.” Mr. Tam confronted the executive about the racism and walked out on the deal. Since then Mr. Tam and his band have leveraged online independent distribution platforms to release their music, which has allowed them to create a successful career without label involvement. However, he explained that artists who forgo record label agreements will generally need to find the right group of representatives to champion their careers. The music industry is full of complex arrangements and niches, which is extremely difficult to navigate on one’s own.
Ralph Jaccodine, who is an artist manager and a professor at the Berklee College of Music, then rounded out the panel by providing the perspectives of the record label and artist manager. Prof. Jaccodine emphasized that modern artists can no longer confine their activities just to creating music. Prof. Jaccodine believes that artists need to be able to wear a bunch of different hats in the music industry so they can delegate aspects of their business to effective representatives. Artists need to educate themselves about their business and understand how activities from concert promoting to publishing function so that they can hire the right representatives to drive their careers. Without a knowledge of their business, artists can be taken advantage of and will not know if a particular manager or agent is worth hiring. Prof. Jaccodine encourages artists that they don’t need record labels to be successful—just knowledge and a good team.
SESSION 7: SUPPORTING ARTISTS & COMMUNITIES
Recognition of and support for local artists and musicians is vital to the preservation of creative and culturally diverse communities. Whether full-time professional musicians or part-time hobbyists, creative individuals’ contributions to their communities are invaluable and difficult to measure. But like many who make a living through artistic endeavors, musicians often struggle to find steady work and lack the benefits that many of us take for granted. Musicians also often encounter mental health and substance abuse issues at a greater rate than non-artists. This panel discussed ways a vibrant music scene can benefit a community, ways that communities can give back, and resources available to musicians in need. The panel was moderated by John Good of the Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts.
Prof. Ying Zhen of Wesleyan College kicked off the panel by discussing her 2018 survey concerning the wellbeing of modern musical artists. This survey was an in-depth, multidimensional study involving 1,000 artists who identified as full-time musicians with sustainable careers and those who were transitioning into such careers. From this data, Prof. Zhen and her team were able to uncover interesting information about the modern working artist. For instance, Prof. Zhen identified that the median income from music for these artists was $35,000 per year, the median artist has around 3.5 different music income streams, and that one-third of their yearly income came from non-music sources. And while much of her research concerned the financial wellbeing of artists, Prof. Zhen also collected data on their general wellbeing. Unfortunately, this research tended to show that artists found the financial instability of music challenging, drug usage by artists in this survey was higher than the national average, and that 76% of women in music reported experiencing sexual harassment. Although these figures did not paint the rosiest portrait of artist wellbeing, Prof. Zhen hopes this survey will bring about social and financial change by educating artists and policymakers on the everyday struggles of artists.
Jennifer Leff from MusiCares then followed Prof. Zhen’s presentation by discussing the resources that MusiCares, one of the largest artist resource organizations in the world, offers to artists. Specifically, Ms. Leff spoke about MusiCare’s grant program that helps artists who are struggling financially due to the global COVID-19 crisis. To qualify for this program, artists must have five years of music industry experience or be able to show proof of six commercially released tracks. Qualifying artists can request small-quantity grants to pay personal expenses, such as rent, medical care, and other necessities. So far, MusiCare’s grant program has supported over 18,000 artists during the COVID-19 pandemic and distributed $20 million in grant relief. In addition to this grant program, Ms. Leff spoke about how MusiCares looks out for the broader music community by offering educational seminars ranging from money management and tax tips for musicians to addiction and recover information.
Yudu Gray Jr., the co-founder of House Studio, then transitioned the panel from discussing overarching artist support organizations to how artists are handling the state of the music industry today. Through his music production company, House Studio, Mr. Gray has not only helped artists create masterful music productions, but he also concedes that he has helped artists with the “boring stuff” such as LLC registrations and accounting practices. However, this more holistic approach to providing foundational artistic and business services has allowed his artists to achieve global notoriety, as in the case of the Gramm–winning artist Logic. Mr. Gray then discussed his firsthand account of watching artists he works with struggle to pay rent and access other necessities because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. He sees that technology and the music industry are trying to pivot to stay alive, which ends up leaving individual artists behind. Recognizing this inequity, Mr. Gray began to look for ways to help artists get money to finance their projects. This search resulted in House Studio connecting with technology companies like Apple and Amazon to help artists’ projects get funded. For example, Mr. Gray spoke generally of an upcoming project where artists could pitch music video ideas to an undisclosed technology company that would fund the project without demanding rights. The only catch is that the content the technology company funded would be exclusive on its platform for a period of time.
Erik Philbrook from the performing rights organization American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) rounded off the panel by providing artists with tips on how they can get compensated for their work. First, Mr. Philbrook emphasized that artists need to register their music properly so that ASCAP and other royalty distributors can identify and compensate artists for their works. Second, he noted that many artists are not collecting their full amount of performance royalties because they only register with performing rights organizations as writers. Mr. Philbrook explained that unless an artist has a relationship with a publisher, the artist herself needs to register as both a writer and publisher with her performing rights organization so that she can receive all of the performance royalties she is due. Finally, Mr. Philbrook wanted to publicize that ASCAP also supports artists with educational materials, seminars, and conferences to teach artists on how to navigate the nuances of the music industry.
CPIP Executive Director Sean O’Connor closed the conference by expressing how pleased he was with how smoothly the conference operated and thanking everyone involved in making this conference possible. Prof. O’Connor provided special thanks to the CPIP team, including Prof. Sandra Aistars, Prof. Devlin Hartline, CPIP Deputy Director Joshua Kresh, Kristina Pietro, and Mary Clare Durel, for their phenomenal work behind the scenes. Additionally, Prof. O’Connor acknowledged the financial and general support of the conference’s sponsors, in particular the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp LLP.
Prof. O’Connor then invited artists, academics, and anyone else to join CPIP next year in a follow-up conference that he anticipates will be themed “Rebuilding the Music Ecosystem.”