[Manic Monday] Supporting Songwriters and Music Publishers With Technology

3 mins read
October 29, 2013

One of the most important – and often not known by the public – parts of the music industry are the songwriters and the music publishers. Artistes and musicians often appear at big concerts and TV, when in fact the songs they sing may not be their creation. Of course, there are many artistes and musicians who write their own songs, but there are also many who write songs for others, focusing on writing songs and not becoming an entertainer. There are also others, say, like a member of a band, who also write songs for other artists.

Becoming a songwriter, or a composer, has become a profession that can be tracked to the classical times. Even if some people differentiate between ‘songwriter’ and ‘composer’, the essence is the same: they create a string of notes as a form of expression, sometimes with lyrics (although sometimes the lyricist is a different person from the songwriter). And with the passage of time, the increasing number of songwriters made it necessary to find a representative for them all, at least for the business management. Therefore, what we know today as the profession and organisation of the music publisher was formed.

Like many things in the music industri structure, the position and role of music publishers and their songwriters are more or less the same. The rights to a song, composed by a songwriter, is fully owned by the songwriter. The management of business, say, for usage in sound recordings, advertisments, and so on, is usually handed over to a music publishing company for revenue share.

The business model also remains more or less the same: if there is a party that wants to use a song, the music publisher, as the songwriter’s representative, will ask for a minimum guarantee payment. There’s usually an agreed royalty rate, and the minimum guarantee is often a multiplication of that number.

The role of music publishers has become increasingly important in the digital age, as all digital-based music businesses, will more or less provide royalties payable to the songwriter. Broadcast services, whether it be traditional broadcast like radio and TV, or digital like online radio (Pandora, Ohdio.fm) and online video (YouTube) by principle need to pay broadcasting rights, although the implementation will wholly depend on the implementation of law and industry in each country.

On-demand services like iTunes or Spotify, by principle, follow the same obligations of CD and cassette sales, which are payment of duplication royalties. And usage of a song by third parties (like for ads or movie soundtracks) need to pay synchronisation rights, negotiated directly with the publisher. The strange thing is, the music publishing industry is somehow unseen, and has stepped out of the spotlight.

Through my limited experiences in the music industry, I think the problem is ignorance. Parties that need songs, don’t know who to call. Songwriters, not knowing what publishers are, spend their time trying to sell their songs and less for composing. Publishers – often just a 2-person operation – are busy managing royalty reports, with no time offering the works of their members to possible interested parties, or search for new songwriters. There’s also the issue of when a song was co-wrote by several people who belong to different publishers, with its associated mess. These many problems, which could actually be helped with technology.

There are some things that could be done:

  1. An online marketplace where publishers can offer their ‘merchandise’ to interested parties; song snippets can be heard first before heading to negotiations. This is what used to be done by Greenlight Music, like what I wrote on my first article for DS.
  2. For those not willing to be involved with the ‘old guard’ of music publishers who are close to major labels, make your own publisher – perhaps through an online cooperative? So that the needs of the members who want to offer their music are fulfilled, without special treatment to anyone? This is similar to what IMP is doing.
  3. An independent information centre about songs, songwriters and their business representatives? This can also serve as a music history center, a function that Irama Nusantara intends to fulfill.

Songwriters, and the music publishing industry in general, is one of those businesses that could be helped a lot with the support of information systems. Offering songs on a platform as simpe as e-commerce can make it easier to find potential clients. Clear information would also help for any copyright disputes, and increase the awareness level about the music industry. The development of digital music services will definitely need the support of robust information systems for responsible royalty payments. Therefore, the question shouldn’t be whether this needs to be done, but when.

Ario is a co-founder of Ohdio, an Indonesian music streaming service. He worked in the digital music industry in Indonesia from 2003 to 2010, and recently worked in the movie and TV industry in Vietnam. Keep up with him on Twitter at @barijoe or his blog at http://barijoe.wordpress.com.

[ilustrasi foto dari Shutterstock]

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