Saturday, November 14, 2015

San Francisco Music Tech Summit Surprises-- Thanks To Streaming Revenue Avengers


Jeff Price and Sharky Laguana: Crusaders for fair streaming royalties

-by Denise Sullivan

So why, of all people was a tech basher like me at the annual Music Tech Summit in San Francisco Tuesday? Well, thanks to a friend they let me inside to observe the local industry in its natural, dealmaking environment. Watching as people with more money than God pressed flesh with old wave music insiders and new music whiz kids was only slightly unsettling as I witnessed people glad-handing as if vying for some kind of winner take all prize like at a modern-day Hustler's convention. But nevermind. Between info sessions offering music business basics (from branding to one huckster who offered his self-taught distinctions of promotion, publicity and p.r. admitting, "I had no experience when I started in this business---I made this shit up") and demos of new technology (a Steinway that plays thousands of songs including Art Tatum's "Tiger Rag" better than Art Tatum), there were also some inspiring people in the room. Shoshana Zisk organized a delightful women in tech meet-up where I was happy to meet a young woman who organized a festival in Peru aligning EDM with environmental sustainability; the women of Give A Beat are using dance music as a tool for promoting social justice causes, and the president of the The People's Music School, promotes perpetually underfunded music education were unexpected bonuses. Really, I was there for the discussion on music streaming, artist royalties, and the ways and means new technology leaders propose to fix the mess of online music services operating totally outside the law, offering music without a license.

Sharky Laguana and Jeff Price both delivered presentations that spelled out in simple terms, with the data to back it up, exactly what's wrong with the system as it stands and how a better infrastructure to support songwriters and publishers could restore bank balances in favor of creators. As Price explains it, music is used to generate revenue for tech companies-- not by selling it but rather, to attract users. He uses Spotify as the main example of a company with a high value (presently $8 million), that actually loses money on music. Amazon also loses money on music. Yet, the music business, as it was once known, was based on the business of selling music (its notorious exploitation of artists notwithstanding). Laguana's findings underscore the effect: As he explains it, one person listening to the same song 10,000 times earns more than 10,000 people listening to the same song once. The way royalties are divvied up, from the way the streaming service takes its cut, to the way the royalties are actually split among artists is a confusing mess of plays versus clicks, inviting fraud (Laguana's ideas are spelled out here). But the next part is shocking: Adding to the quagmire, Price's company Audiam has estimated that over 200,000 songs currently streamed by Spotify are being used without a license. So not only are the wrong people getting paid, most people aren't getting paid at all.

Correcting this gross imbalance, not to mention flagrant non-compliance with basic copyright law, would not only be fair and law abiding, but would make a difference to middle class, working musicians for whom the loss of their rightful mechanical royalty payouts can mean forsaking health insurance, groceries and rent. In the context of a tech deal-brokering conference, Price's and Laguana's propositions were fairly revolutionary and not necessarily what a hotel filled with so-called innovators looking to make a killing off the backs of musicians were prepared to hear. But until proven otherwise, it appears these guys are offering solutions (much like Camper Van Beethoven's David Lowery) that urge the government to enforce existing copyright laws and deliver cash on the barrelhead to songwriters, publishers and more heroically, musicians at risk.

After the session on my way to the nearest exit, I bumped into Laguana (formerly of the indie band, Creeper Lagoon) and Price (formerly of SpinArt Records and TuneCore) and offered congratulations on their findings, with sincere thanks and hope we live to see the day when the creators of the music we cherish are duly compensated. "You guys are the digital version of the the people who rallied to collect the unpaid royalties for the rock and blues heritage artists," I told them. Organizations like Bonnie Raitt's Rhythm and Blues Foundation still insist pioneers of modern music be paid what they're worth. "Well, sure, I guess," said Price, slightly taken aback by my enthusiasm. Though what's missing in the men's crusade to collect is a massive coalition of musicians behind them, supporting their play. This is the kind of tech innovation that would provide a much-needed service, something the tech industry insists it's doing, though so far there's precious little evidence they are. Developing an infrastructure to collect unpaid royalties, enforce copyright law and discourage click fraud might not be a cure to cancer, but it's better than the creation of yet another music delivery service and the current rate of $0.00067 from a stream on Spotify (now likely playing a beloved song by an artist you love without a necessary license to do so).

Denise Sullivan writes about arts, culture, and gentrification (and on this occasion, digital technology).



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