KILLING IS MY BUSINESS: 4 Music Biz Stories to Watch in 2015

2014 was a year of major tumult for the music biz. CD and download sales took a beating as streaming continued to skyrocket; at the same time, streaming services took a beating from many quarters of the industry, and not a single one of them has proven profitable. U2 apologized for the biggest album release in history, and Carcass and Cannibal Corpse stunk up the charts. The major players in the metal music biz aren't the same folks you'll see on the cover of Billboard each week, but metal is still impacted by broader industry trends. Here are four music biz stories that you should pay attention to this year, and why.

1) MORE ARTIST PULLOUTS FROM STREAMING SERVICES

Seems like every week there’s another artist you don’t listen to decrying the state of streaming royalties. While plenty of acts have long withheld some or all of their records from streaming services (including Tool, who have their own reasons for holding out), Taylor Swift’s 2014 decision to remove 1989 from Spotify was a watershed moment. She’s the first contemporary pop star to tell her fans “You like me? Then you’ll have to buy my shit” (That quote was a paraphrase, by the way. T-Swizzle don’t curse). No question we’ll see more critical op-eds about, defenses of, and pullouts from streaming services in 2015 from artists. Bring ‘em on.

Why you should care: Artist pullouts are not just about shitting on streaming services. They’re about setting precedents, and getting people talking about the larger music ecosystem and the future of music. Just because Pandora and Spotify’s free services work great for music consumers, doesn’t mean they’re great for music creators...yet.

2) DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE EXAMINING PRO CONSENT DECREES 

In 1941, the US Department of Justice entered into consent decrees with ASCAP and BMI, the two main performing rights organizations (PROs) in the US that pay royalties to songwriters and publishers when their music is played publicly. These consent decrees regulate how the PROs do business. The oversight made sense back then, but times have changed. Now that streaming has all but eclipsed downloading and physical sales, the balance between music users and music rights holders has shifted, and it’s harder than ever for a songwriter to make a buck.

The PROs believe that the consent decrees are a major part of the problem, effectively barring songwriters from getting a free market rate when music is played. Their complaints are well-founded – a rate court judge decided in 2014 that Pandora should pay ASCAP just 1.85% of revenue, a pittance compared to what they’re paying recording artists and record labels for the exact same streams.

The DOJ is currently taking a look at the effectiveness of the PRO consent decrees, and we can probably expect some kind of action in 2015.

Why you should care: If the consent decrees aren’t updated meaningfully, it’s quite possible that major music publishers will remove their catalogs from the PROs, in hopes of striking more lucrative direct deals that aren’t bound by consent decrees. This would be a major blow to music creators – the PROs are among the very few organizations that offer songwriters a reliable income, and their lobbying clout has helped to pass essential, creator-friendly legislation over the years. Even a no-name grindcore band can benefit from the many programs they offer up-and-comers.

[full disclosure: I typed this post on a break from my day job at ASCAP]

3) WHITHER VINYL? 

We’ve known for a while that vinyl is hot shit. Always was in the metal world. The rest of the world is quickly catching up: according to Nielsen’s 2014 year-end report, vinyl sales rose by a whopping 52% in 2014, and now account for a full 6% of physical album sales, 9.2 million albums total. Vinyl is the lone growth sector among physical sales, and whole slew of vinyl-centric record shops and vinyl-forward record labels have sprung up to support the demand. Even cooler, this year’s biggest vinyl albums were a combination of new (Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, Lana Del Rey) and old (Miles Davis, Bob Marley, the Beatles). So not only is there a market for LPs, but it’s a distinct market.

At the same time, the relatively few vinyl pressing plants in the US are having a hard time catching up, and getting new presses made is nearly impossible. Should be fascinating to see how the supply side develops – will deep-pocketed labels invest in their own plants and take over the manufacturing? Or maybe the opposite – small firms will seek to restore old plants and keep concentrating on smaller runs of more expensive, independent records? Or hell, maybe 3D-printing could alleviate the problem entirely?

Why you should care: Metal fans are the perfect vinyl audience – a music so visceral needs an equally visceral medium. Vinyl’s resurgence is a victory for the tangible, the visual, the intimate, the human, all qualities we believe in. And by putting an emphasis on physical goods created with care, we start to re-value the music that the digital revolution has de-valued.

4) TOWARDS A GLOBAL DATABASE OF MUSIC METADATA

There are a mind-boggling number of pipers to be paid whenever a song is sold, licensed or performed. The company you pay if you want to record your version of Mastodon’s “Mother Puncher” (HFA) is different than who you would pay to use it in a video (the band’s publisher), or play it over the PA system at your bar (BMI). Musicians’ unions get involved, too – they want to make sure that union backup singers get their due. And keep in mind, this is just in the US. Laws differ from country to country.

Point is, there’s a super-complex constellation of licenses and copyright rules and rightsholders that surround any single piece of music. Much of that info is scattered among various interested parties, which puts a big administrative burden on anyone trying to follow the rules and pay the right people. Wouldn’t it be nice if all this info were in one place, accessible to anyone?

That’s the concept behind building a global database of music metadata, an idea that’s been gaining traction over the last few years. A European Global Rights Database failed to get off the ground last year; some North American PROs have had preliminary success with a similar project called MusicMark. Spotify Artist-in-Residence DA Wallach recently proposed using a Bitcoin-style model to accomplish the task.

Why you should care: An authoritative, global database of music metadata would ideally mean quicker, more accurate, and probably larger payments to recording artists and songwriters. Those are all good things.

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