SONA sues the DoJ
Acronyms – I suppose – can often lessen an otherwise impactful sentence. Case in point: “SONA dues the US DoJ.” Most know that the latter is the United States Department of Justice, but SONA?
SONA is the Songwriters of North America, founded by songwriter/musicians Michelle Lewis and Kay Henley, and entertainment attorney Dina LaPolt. Its origins lay in an all-to-familiar anecdote of a songwriter receiving paltry royalties from a streaming service.
Lewis co-wrote the Little Mix song “Wings”, which at the time she was interviewed by The New Yorker, had three million streams on Spotify. Her royalty check?
To which Hanley replied, ‘What the f*ck?’
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The music industry has been on unsteady footing for the past two decades, thanks to the digital age in which we now live. The push and pull between artists, rigthsholders, streaming services, collecting societies – and those who regulate and legislate them – has been a game of one step forward, two steps back. As streaming services (including YouTube) assert their dominance as the consumer’s preferred method of music consumption, musicians and songwriters are repeatedly voicing their discontent, with decidedly mixed results.
SONA is not the first impressive coalition of musicians trying to influence and affect change in the many corners of the battle for fair remuneration, from class action lawsuits to petitions to lobbying politicians for support. One example: due to a long-standing legislative loophole US-based terrestrial radio does not have to pay royalties for the music they play. musicFIRST, “a broad spectrum of organizations representing musicians, recording artists, managers, music businesses and performance right advocates,” has lobbied the US Congress to pass the Fair Play Fair Pay Act, which “would for the first time require AM/FM radio broadcasters to pay royalty fees to recording artists and record labels,” writes Victor Nava of The Daily Caller. (The bill was “referred to the committee” in April 2015, and is yet to be debated. Website Govtrack gives it an 11% chance of passing.)
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. From David Lowery of Camper van Beethoven’s class action lawsuit against Spotify for its “stream now, license later” policy, to artists petitioning both the US and the EU against the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the EU Commerce Directive’s safe harbor, SONA’s lawsuit is one in a long line. The question is: will any of these make a dent in the dominance of corporate streaming services and their increasing monopoly?
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With so many lawsuits and pieces of proposed legislation, change seems both tangible and impossible. Even if “the value gap” closes, some argue that it will only benefit the biggest artists and rightsholders.
But Mark Sutherland, Editor of Music Week, is advocating another tactic: disruption. He recently cited Skepta’s winning of this year’s Mercury Prize as marking a trend whereby new and emerging artists work around the system rather than within it.
“The success of [Skepta’s album] has involved established companies when it needs to (publishing, distribution),” he writes. “But by and large, things have been done in Skepta’s own, independent way. So the biz can celebrate the closing of the value gap…But it should also think about the chasm opening up between old and new school business models. No amount of EC legislation is going to bridge that.”
The idea of a musician working successfully outside the corporate music industry is nothing new, but it is certainly rare. Singer/songwriter Ani Difranco – who releases her music on her own record label – has been an industry anomaly since she emerged onto the scene 25 years ago (and is still going strong). Even back as far as 1996, she was making headlines for having “the best royalty deal in the music business,” making “more than twice the going rate for major label superstars.” How? Because she managed everything on her label, including distribution and manufacturing, and marketed her music through a relentless touring schedule, “the profit from her music is not used to underwrite corporate overhead.”
So while the notion of musicians finding success outside of corporations isn’t new, it is certainly a challenge in a landscape where streaming is increasingly becoming the dominant mode of consumption and the pay-per-stream-rate just isn’t working for artists, for a number of reasons. But – at least in the short term, while lawsuits and pieces of legislation at best, are slow to pass and implement, and at worst, gather dust – it might be crucial for survival.
Music 4.5: The Politics of Licensing will take place in London on 27 September 2016. Buy your tickets and view the agenda here.
A companion seminar – Music 4.5: The Value Gap – will take place in New York on 2 November 2016. Get your tickets here.
Music 4.5 is conceived, organised and executed by 2Pears.