Evolution not revolution

Smartphones, sheet music and syncs: Anita Awbi spends time with the publishing community to find an industry in flux

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 26 Jun 2012
  • min read
Smartphones, sheet music and syncs: Anita Awbi spends time with the publishing community to find an industry in flux.

Sitting on a leather chair in his company’s well stocked library, Chris Butler, chairman of the Music Publishers’ Association and head of publishing at Music Sales, sips from a cup of tea. The room is packed to the rafters with sheet music and, glancing over the wooden bookshelves and coloured spines, it could almost be any year, in any decade, during the publisher’s long history. It’s as if the digital storm outside never hit. Except, just three months ago, this same room hosted a press conference to launch the company’s new suite of smartphone and tablet music apps.

‘I remember doing a piece for ITN last year when Steve Jobs died,’ he says. ‘I was asked what view the publishing industry had of Apple. I told them that you’ve got to take your hat off to people like Steve, people who have really transformed our industry.’

Music Sales, like many publishers, has been around long enough to weather significant industry changes and format shifts, altering its course to keep up with the prevailing winds. Both a sheet music publisher and classical and pop rights catalogue owner, the company sits across every aspect of music publishing, including the emergent apps space.

‘Our job is to be a good publisher, not only to identify writing and composing talent and really understand where that writer is coming from, but also identify where the market is going and what the market wants to hear,’ Butler stresses. ‘Our job is not to create and control technology; it is to work with the technology of our time.’

No music publisher has been immune to the flood of digital technologies that has battered mechanical royalties and altered the way we interact with music forever. But, while record companies bear the scars of a decade long war with digital pirates from Napster to The Pirate Bay, publishers still have lessons to learn and a future to shape.

It has been widely acknowledged that the music industry was slow to adapt to the rising power of the new technology companies, opting instead to protect the old world. But in doing so, recent history has been ‘littered with examples of the failure to license’, believes Butler.

‘The music industry was left far behind by peer-to-peer sites, the Napsters of this world, which then became legitimate businesses. We ended up perhaps losing control and losing the higher ground, and we’ve since had to play catch up with the people who have revolutionised our business.’

Sure, the industry has shifted, bringing reason enough to eye the future with trepidation, but is change really something new? In the 1920s and 30s, sheet music publishers faced the invention of the gramophone and the radio, followed by TV and, later still, the seven inch single, the LP and the controversial blank cassette. One glance back over Oxford University Press records from the roaring 20s will confirm the mood of general mistrust, with documents denouncing the creation of a British collecting society and staff memos urging them to ignore PRS as it ‘simply will not work’.

Nearly a century later, the music industry turns yet another corner. But this time, publishers know that change is the only constant. As Andrew King, PRS board member and general manager of independent publisher Mute Song notes: ‘Every now and then a new set of people will come along who don’t really want to pay to use music. Record companies didn’t want to pay us, especially the groovy little indie labels. Then the video guys didn’t want to pay us. Now the digital guys have turned up and they don’t want to pay us either.’

King recalls the Puppet on a String days of the early 1960s, when publishers foisted hit singles onto artists’ managers over boozy lunches in Soho. He quips that, while the business works hard to adapt, the golden age may have already passed: ‘As a music publisher 20 years ago, you just lay in bed and record companies poured mechanical royalties down your neck! That was all you had to do.’

But the technology shift hasn’t just affected mechanical royalties for pop and rock publishers; the whole ecosystem has evolved. Within the classical and sheet music sectors, digital typesetting and music engraving programmes such as Sibelius have revolutionised the way music is created and distributed. Meanwhile digital rights management and demand for pan-regional licences has irreversibly altered the relationship between publishers and their collecting societies.
In 2012, music publishing has reached a crossroads. Digital revenue streams have not yet produced the golden ticket some hoped. For many, they still make up less than ten percent of income. Meanwhile traditional CD and DVD incomes, although in decline, are still vitally important – a precarious situation to be in. Sitting with Butler in the Music Sales library, the axis where old meets new is so tangible you can almost touch it. He waves his hand towards a pile of books. ‘For me, this is still the publishing business too,’ he says.

‘And, rightly or wrongly, I still see the same publishers around the MPA table. There may be other reasons for that – we may be an organisation that doesn’t absorb change very quickly, or you could say that we are still here for a reason and those publishers are surviving, adapting and thriving.’

Bucks Music, a family business run by managing director Simon Platz, has found opportunities in the changing industry. Platz’ father David founded the business in the 1950s, and went on to sign the likes of The Who, Rolling Stones and David Bowie. The company has a strong back catalogue to lean on in tighter times, but since his father’s passing in 1994, Platz has built a roster of new acts and boosted the A&R team.

As the record industry has contracted with the onset of the digital music market, development budgets at the major record labels have shrunk to a new low. This has encouraged publishers like Bucks to throw their hats into the ring and fill part of the A&R vacuum left behind.

For Bucks, the business has gone a full circle since the 1960s, when composers and songwriters relied more heavily on publishers to develop their careers: ‘We’re looking for the raw talent before the major publishers or major labels’, Platz says. ‘It’s become that we, as publishers, are developing composers from a younger age.’

Urban artist Professor Green signed to Bucks over seven years ago, and the publisher waited several years before seeing a significant return on its investment. Meanwhile, the publisher has recently revived its Fly label, first established in the 1970s, to showcase new signings and register a physical presence in the record industry.

Bucks is not alone. Three year old BMG Chrysalis, part of the German owned Bertelsmann Group, is one of the largest independent publishers in the world, and it’s armed with an enviable A&R budget and interest in the recording business.
Spending time with UK senior vice president Alexi Cory-Smith, it’s easy to see the hunger that BMG Chrysalis has for new publishing models. She explains that the company is moving into the master recordings market in London, not to provide the alternative to the record label model, but to offer songwriters on its roster more choice.

She cites BMG’s deal with the reformed Dexys as a good example of the company’s masters model. ‘Increasingly we find ourselves talking to writers about one thing, their publishing, and then it emerges that there is the opportunity to help them with a record too. There are strong business drivers behind it - from a sync perspective it is clearly valuable to be able to handle both rights. Technology speaks to it – in a digital age there is no great difference between collecting one royalty stream and another. This is not the old fashioned music mogul model where a company offers to make you a star. This is about us as facilitators, helping artists reach their potential.’

Although the proliferation of media has sliced and diced the same audiences across many more channels, driving down advertising budgets, Cory-Smith acknowledges there are still huge opportunities in sync. So does John Minch, chief executive of independent publisher Imagem. His catalogue spans the rosters of Boosey and Hawkes, Rodgers and Hammerstein and Imagem Music – all highly sync-able material – but still the publisher says it’s necessary to bend over backwards for the advertising agencies.

‘We’ll have bands playing at their offices, and at their parties. We’ll invite them to all sorts of things. It’s quite a big market still, and having a small part of a big market works out to be quite a lot. But unless you have a good established sync department now, you’re not even at the races,’ he cautions.

Minch explains that sync departments can’t get away with what they could even five years ago. ‘You can’t wait for the phones to ring anymore. It’s about working harder with the catalogue you’ve got.’

An area that remains solid is performing income, through live concerts, radio, TV, events and more. And publishers that have developed a successful catalogue of musical and opera rights will always enjoy this stable income stream, proving that while some things within the industry have changed, others remain static.

What has changed is the need to improve and streamline music data, to ensure that royalty payment process in the digital age remains practical and efficient. ‘The registration data, the reporting data we receive from PRS for Music, and our ability to process that – it’s all become much more complex because everything has become much more granular with digital,’ explains Simon Wright, head of rights and contracts at Oxford University Press, who has been at the classical publisher for 28 years.
‘We’re talking individual tracks or segments of tracks. There is so much data. I have a horrible feeling that, as an industry, we are in danger of drowning in it if we don’t rationalise it!’

Recent investment and commitment in a global repertoire database, supported by collecting societies including PRS for Music and publishers such as EMI Music Publishing and Universal Music Publishing, represents a huge leap forward for the publishing community. It could help wrap up all those digital pennies, gleaned from millions of small online music usages, into profitable pounds, believes Wright.

There’s certainly much to keep publishers busy in 2012 and, while the smallest specialist companies right up to the largest majors learn to adapt and thrive, BMG Chrysalis’ Alexi Cory-Smith encapsulates the optimism of an industry in flux: ‘Music’s alive. Just look at Adele. It’s alive but it’s changed. It’s growing in other dimensions, it’s modernising, it’s evolving. That’s life.’