Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Music licensing @CES2014

I attended what turned into a fun session on music licensing policy at CES in Las Vegas.  The paneL included a music industry rep from RIAA, the head of a public interest group, and two former musicians.

It started off on focus - acknowledging the mess that is music licensing in the US today, and some ideas for improvement.  The RIAA rep, Steven Marks, said one problem was that there was no comprehensive database of songs and performances, which could make it difficult to know whether a license was needed when using a recording, and who to contact to get it. 
[Which reminded me of a recent story that one of the nastiest of the licensers (for 'Happy Birthday to You') may actually have never filed for a legal copyright for the piece, and thus may have been illegally collecting licensing fees for decades.]
But he's right that having a central listing of licensed works would be helpful - particularly if they verify that pre-1976 works were actually copyrighted.  (Post- 1976 creations are automatically granted copyrights). He also suggested creating a basic licensing center for 'small' users.  Making things easier would arguably help those who want to be legal to do so.

Mark Weinberg, acting Co-President of Public Knowledge - a public interest group promoting wider diffusion of knowledge and content, concurred that making it easier for music users to know what licenses may or may not be needed, and making them easier to obtain would be useful - but was concerned that the industry would try to limit fair use exemptions and collect fees from those who shouldn't have to pay.  He also expressed a desire to see the industry become more flexible in dealing with new media and applications, to support innovations and the exploration of potential new music outlets.  He noted that there was a wide range of music licensing strategies (and different rates) being applied to the wide variety of digital music distribution options - and that applying a single consistent standard, regardless of what technological backend was used for delivery, would be helpful.

Next came Dave Allen, former Gang of Four member.  He made a strong point about the changes in the music industry.  Vastly more listened to radio or streaming sources today. He noted that the prime source for music with today's youth is YouTube (the RIAA guy agreed), but since most of the music content there is in the form of promotional videos, they don't pay royalties.  That led to a claim that the record industry is making deals with streamers that bypass licensing fees and cheat musicians, joined by Hank Shocklee (founder of Public Enemy), and prompting predictable objections from Steve Marks (Chief, Digital Business and General Counsel for RIAA).  The discussion of that generated a great deal of fun back and forth between the artists on the panel and the RIAA rep.

But the key point, which Dave Allen came back to later when things calmed down, was that digital and streaming music sources had the potential to scale much higher than the old record industry, again something the RIAA rep and other panel members acknowledged. Marks, from RIAA, noted that the scale of the physical recordings industry was always fairly small - people, on average, bought only 2-3 records a year, and acknowledged that the potential of digital to be significantly higher. Someone made the point that in the heyday of the old records industry, hit records were sales in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S.  Today, Spotify's paid subscribership in the U.S. is around 6 million, and Beyonce's recent digital album sales were in the millions in the first month alone. Allen suggested the digital market could easily explode - if the right model and pricing develops.

One problem delaying the scale-up is the fact that today's rights fee scales are derived from the payment schedule for vinyl records and that scale of sales.  Revising rights fees (lower) to the higher scale levels could encourage more listening, scale up music use, and benefit artists even more than the current system.  Of course, the RIAA guy wasn't about to support reducing licensing fees, but the head of Public Knowledge encouraged the idea, as a way of  encouraging exploration and development of new delivery options. 

I've been thinking about licensing fees and pricing strategies a lot lately (particularly focused on the bundling vs. a la carte debate on cable), and had a couple of proposals to offer - but the session ran out of time.  I wanted to support the notion of thinking of rescaling rights fees to the potential scale of digital systems - while it might initially reduce short-term revenue generation, it would accelerate the growth of those systems and in the long term had the potential in the long term to generate much higher revenues for the industry and the artists.  The other idea I wanted to raise was the notion of exploiting versioning.

Versioning is a strategy in marketing information goods where different versions of the product are offered at different prices, or to different market segments.  Versioning, based on sound quality, seems to have a natural potential for music.  It's already in regular use - Spotify offers free access to lower-quality streams, and lets subscribers also upgrade their subscriptions to higher-quality.  However, the current licensing system applies the same fees for all quality versions.  If the licensing fee rate schedules would similarly differentiate between quality versions, this could address many of the Public Knowledge's concerns about providing a mechanism for exploration and development of new music distribution systems.  It could also facilitate a better music promotion and sampling system - letting people to listen to low-rez versions of whole songs rather than the current method of allowing very short snippets from the start of songs.

Certainly, all the panelists, and most everyone in the audience, agreed that the current music rights and licensing scheme is massively screwed up, and the inevitable "strong debates" over major record labels handling of rights and fee reimbursements to artists just acts to delay any efforts towards solutions.  There are very reasonable proposals out there, some expressed by panelists, and multiple others being offered by academics, professionals, and policy types (including my own not-so-humble ideas).  It's time, as the panel title suggests, to "Stop Fighting and Fix It."

Sources -
Video of the Stop Fighting and Fix It music licensing session at the CEA Innovative Policy Summit, CES2014, can be found here.

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