Music licensing is messed up. While that has been my opinion for a while, it became painfully clear during the month of June when I was privileged to participate in three different round table discussions on music licensing sponsored by the U.S. Copyright Office, taking place in Nashville, Los Angeles and New York. There were nine sessions during each city’s two-day event with roughly 17 people participating in at each session. The estimated fifty or more organizations represented included NMPA, RIAA, Spotify, Google, broadcasters, A2IM, SoundExchange, PRO’s, universities, songwriter organizations, publishers, and many others. At just about each of the total 27 sessions, someone made a reference, and usually a valid point, about how the current music licensing system is not efficient or effective, and needs to be changed. But what?…and how?….and when?…and by whom?
After leading the Nashville and LA sessions, General Counsel and Associate Register of Copyrights in the U.S. Copyright Office, Jacqueline Charlesworth, made reference to a humorous, but very poignant, book by Dr. Seuss to start the New York sessions. I remember reading the story as a kid. It’s called The Zax. It tells of a north and south bound Zax, who bump into each other. Each demands that the other move one step to the side so they can pass. But both refuse. Both reject the idea of changing their ways. Both dig in their heels, remain at a standstill, and refuse to budge. And meanwhile the world simply progresses around them.
At the round tables, as each organization attempted to justify their own position, it became painfully clear there were certain issues that were sacred, or non-starters, in any kind of future discussions toward future change. Just one step to the side? Not going to happen…at least not THAT step! Record companies defended their right to a greater share of royalties due to their “investment” in the products; terrestrial radio defended their right to not pay royalties for recordings since they successfully “promote” music for artists; songwriters and publishers argued for free market rates and greater control of the use of their songs; music license services justified their licensing for digital entities through compulsory licenses; performing rights organizations defended their business models and sought freedom from consent decrees; digital service providers argued that they needed access to 100% of the music “content” in order to launch their businesses; and others wanted more access to use copyrights with less permissions and restrictions. It was hard for anyone to think about stepping to the side….even just one step.
If the message of the Zax doesn’t resonate with us, maybe an account from medieval Europe can teach us something.
In his 2008 book, The Gridlock Economy, Michael Heller explains the history of the Rhine River in Germany beginning around the 1300’s, when it was a great European trade route for merchant ships. Along the route, German barons built large castles, many of which are still standing today, in order to collect illegal tolls to allow the merchant ships to pass. Over the years, more and more castles were built to charge tolls, to the point where the shipping trade suffered because the combined cost of passage through the river gauntlet became impractical. As the shipping industry declined, and each participant continued to defend their ground and refused to budge, what do you think happened?
Did the toll castles work together to make the fees more reasonable? No. They continued to justify their own existing business model. Did the merchant ships band together and boycott in order to try and force a more favorable fee? Maybe, but they weren’t able to come together enough to make any real impact. Did government step in? Yes, they began to shut down the toll collectors, but only after hundreds of years, and effectively too late.
So what happened? Someone looked at the existing mess, saw the lack of everyone working together, and simply developed another solution.
A railroad was built. A faster, cheaper and more reliable option.
And the world was forever changed. Just as with the Zaks, the world kept progressing, and the stubborn players were left behind.
Congressman Doug Collins (R-GA), who introduced the Songwriter Equity Act of 2014, said during the June 26th Music Licensing Hearing in D.C., “If we continue to say ‘I’ve got to protect my model, and you’ve got to protect your model,’ then where will we be 20 years from now?’” I think he was talking to the toll castles and merchant ships in today’s music industry. He was addressing the music industry’s Zax. He was talking to us.
So, who’s going to adjust to a new direction to allow this industry to move forward? What groups are going to commit to working together, maybe taking one step to the side, to discover a transforming solution? Who’s going to build the railroad? Hopefully, we won’t find ourselves in 20 years, like the Zax, still facing off with each other, refusing to budge, while the world goes by.
John Barker is President & CEO of ClearBox Rights, LLC, an independent rights managements company based in Nashville, TN. He is also Chairman of the Copyright Society of the South. John publishes a blog related to songwriting, publishing and copyright issues which can be found at http://clearboxrights.wordpress.com or www.clearboxrights.com.