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Aloe Blacc enters digital royalty debate, advocates consent decree overhaul

By | Published on Thursday 6 November 2014

Aloe Blacc

‘The Man’ man Aloe Blacc has weighed into the debate on streaming royalties in an op-ed piece for Wired which kicks off by noting Taylor Swift’s Spotify exit earlier this week, but which is really concerned with the previously reported consent decree review in the US.

Confirming that he was writing this piece as a songwriter first and foremost, and countering any suggestion that the music industry has been more fiercely protecting its intellectual property than anyone else, he writes: “Unlike most people in creative industries, songwriters seem to have less control over our work than ever before”.

“Knock off a handbag design from a high-end fashion house or use a sports team’s logo in your new t-shirt line”, he says, “and expect a lawsuit in short order. And good luck copying a big tech company’s patented innovation. You need express permission from the original creators to use or copy their work before you resell it. That’s how they protect the value of their work”.

“But the world doesn’t work that way for songwriters. By law, we have to let any business use our songs that asks, so long as they agree to pay a rate that, more often than not, was not set in a free market. We don’t have a choice. As such, we have no power to protect the value of the music we create”.

Blacc, of course, is describing the collective licensing system that is common in the music industry and especially when it comes to licensing the copyrights created by songwriters (as opposed to recording artists).

Of course, more often than not songwriters aren’t actually forced by law to licence through the collective licensing system – and Irving Azoff’s new collecting society rivalling company Global Music Rights shows that there are other options, especially for big name acts – though in practical terms most songwriters feel locked to collective licensing, and therefore resent the extra regulations that govern the big collecting societies and the royalty rates they can charge.

The main societies in the US, of course, are trying to have those regulations – set out in the ‘consent decrees’ and controlled by America’s Department Of Justice – overhauled, not least so that songwriters and publishers can insist on licensing all digital services directly, while still covering radio, live and public performance through BMI and ASCAP licences.

And that’s really what Blocc is writing about. He goes on: “Through performing rights societies, this summer songwriters successfully convinced the US Department Of Justice to open a formal review of the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees that govern how the vast majority of American songwriters are compensated for our work. The world has changed dramatically since this regulatory framework was first established in 1941, but the consent decrees haven’t been updated since 2001 – before the iPod even hit stores”.

And he goes on more: “Updating the nation’s antiquated music licensing system will better serve the needs of not only music creators, like me, but businesses that use our music, consumers and the global marketplace for music. But the digital music services that see a financial advantage in maintaining the status quo are fighting hard to obstruct any meaningful reform”.

For ASCAP and BMI, busy lobbying the DoJ for radical change to collective licensing rules in the US, the vocal support of high profile figures like Blacc, especially in the tech press, is a good thing.

Though whether an overhauled collective licensing system – and therefore direct licensing by music publishers of services like Pandora in the US – would fix the woefully small digital royalties songwriters receive for their hit songs, something Blacc bemoans earlier in his article, is debatable.

The loss-making streaming services argue that they can’t afford to hand over any more of their revenues, and that the solution is everyone working to building a bigger market, so while per-play royalties remain tiny, overall cheques go up. Though for songwriters the real issue is probably that the vast majority of streaming money is going to the labels rather than the publishers, an issue highlighted by songwriter group CIAM just last week.

And that quandary will require a battle between the music rights owners, rather than with the digital service providers.