Chris Butler, MPA

The chairman of the Music Publishers' Association shares his views on an industry in flux, points to some of the lessons learned from the Napster days, and explains why much still needs to be done to keep ahead of the game.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 27 Jun 2012
  • min read
He has worked in the publishing industry since the early 80s, starting at Chappell Music (later Warner Chappell), before joining classical independent publisher Novello in 1989.

Music Sales took over Novello in 1993 and, as well as publishing leading songwriters and composers such as Michael Nyman and Philip Glass through traditional channels; it is in the forefront of new and emerging digital technologies.

We caught up with Chris to find out how he thinks the industry is evolving and hear about some of the lessons that publishers’ have learned since the Napster days.

How has music publishing changed over the last decade?
My first boss was Jonathan Simon at Chappell, who just recently passed away. I soon found that there is always some technical revolution, and when I went there, Warner became allied to the Warner Record Label. This was the mid to late eighties and it was right on the cusp of the CD becoming the dominant format. It doesn’t seem that long ago but it was pre-mobile phone, internet, fax. In the past 10 years especially, we’ve lived through tremendous change. First was singles, and then albums and now with the internet, we’re back to singles.

How has this affected publishing?
It’s certainly affected the record industry. With the financial yield for a publisher on a £20 album with a £10 dealer price, you were generating 70, 80, 90p per unit. Now you’re looking at pennies on a 79p single download. The economics have changed. What we’ve always been told is that, yes, the values will go down, but the volumes will explode and we will suddenly have many many many more customers, and I think that’s still the dream that we’re being sold but I’m not sure it’s arrived yet.

It’s still the case, sitting on the MPA board, and PRS and MCPS boards, and seeing actually what proportion of the business is generated by the new revenue streams, that it’s very much the 98 – two percent rule, where 98 percent of the time you’re talking about two percent of the business. That’s on the understanding, of course, that it surely will be the future. But, the traditional income streams are still important. We’re sitting here in a library of our current books; for me this is still the music business. A lot of things have changed but a few things have stayed the same too.

Surely the shift within the music industry has affected you less than it has the record companies?
Yes, it has. We haven’t gone through the same systemic change. We still produce material in the same format. Clearly, copyright exists within the master recording, but the format itself has always been something you license into. So you license the format that was the 78, or the album, or the cassette, mini-disc, or the CD. So the carrier has always been licensed. If you are in the business of pressing millions of CDs and distributing them, then that has completed changed. The CD has been completely overtaken by the mp3.

How has digital, and platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud, really affected the business?
Rightly or wrongly, I still see the same publishers around the 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 here for a reason and all those publishers are surviving, adapting and thriving.

I was always taught that there are only two mantras to publishing, exploitation and licensing. If you could exploit it, you exploited it. If you couldn’t exploit it, you licensed somebody who could. And what you absolutely couldn’t do is basically sit on your assets and not take advantage of all the licensing opportunities that were around you.
 The record industry was slow to realise the power of technology and wanted to protect the old world.

Now, some of those opportunities may, in the long run, become less yielding than others, but I think that’s absolutely the mantra. If you don’t license, you miss the opportunity. Our recent history has been littered with examples of the failure to license. And if you fail to license you basically end up with piracy. An example is that we as an industry were really slow to act with real tones. By the time we got our act together the market had kind of gone.

The record industry was slow to realise the power of technology and wanted to protect the old world. The music industry was left far behind by peer-to-peer sites, the Napsters of this world, which were the great pirates of the time, but then they became legitimate businesses. We ended up perhaps losing control and losing the higher ground, and we’ve had to play catch up with people who have revolutionised our business. I remember doing a piece for ITN last year when Steve Jobs died. 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.

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. Our job is not to create and control technology; it is to work with the technology of our time.
There’s no question that priorities have changed...

What lessons have the industry learned since the days of Napster?
We’re still learning the lesson, because we can still be slow. But the lesson has been to remind ourselves of the importance of making our repertoire available on equitable terms and to take a calculated risk with the repertoire. Of course we shouldn’t be reckless, but we should, and PRS is particularly good at this, have people who understand what’s on the horizon in terms of the next generation of technology and understand not just the technical capability but also the reach of these technologies.

Publishing has always been a territorial game. We have sub-publishers all around the world who have not been able to necessarily police our rights in the old world and technology knows no barriers and that really is a huge opportunity.

There’s no question that priorities have changed. You could take a very formulaic approach to music publishing and there’s business rationale in that. You could ask, ‘What’s the fastest growing sector? You make musical judgements.

How have the opportunities changed?
What would have been the pinnacle of publishing success 20 years ago is no longer the yardstick. I heard recently that an album in Spain reached number one with 2,500 copies sold - that’s nonsense. If you go back to the heyday, it was a many times multiple of 2,500 units. From a publisher’s point of view, what the mechanical royalty will be from 2,500 heavily discounted albums is very small.

We here at Music Sales had the Christmas number one with Military Wives singing Wherever You Are. It broke all sorts of records and was actually published by Novello, one of our companies here that was celebrating its 200th year last year - it was its first number one. But the financial results for that, while they won’t be uninteresting, will never be like as interesting as bagging Christmas number one 20 years, and that’s simply because of the proliferation of media. If you look at broadcasting, with the multiplicity of channels now, the same audience is sliced and diced in many more ways.

While these things are nice, part of a publisher’s job is to adapt to what is going to be the most significant return on the time spent. It is still the case, for example, that synchronisation is the big ticket for a publisher. It depends what sort of publisher you are, but we here specialise in theatrical and grand rights works, which generally fill theatres night after night and generate very good publishing income. Therefore, if you can develop a successful catalogue of theatrical rights, as well as musicals and opera, that’s going to be good business. So, while some things have changed, others have remained the same.

Those who were good publishers 10 years ago are still good publishers today. They are still the successful publishers. Just going back to the new income streams, it’s a lot of work to, in some cases, generate not a lot of money. It’s become a micro-payment business.

You also produce apps. How big a part of Music Sales’ business is it?
Candidly, it’s not a big part of our business in terms of results at the moment, but it’s a very important part of our investment and we have a significant number of people working on apps in London and New York and a tremendous amount of material that can be converted into apps. But more importantly, we are looking at the capability of the technology to create new products that are sympathetic to what that top technology will do.
There is so much potential with new technology

It would be a mistake to scan content into an app when the technology can do so much more. There is so much potential with the technology, the trick is to not let the product run away with itself. The customer base will want this fantastic product but they will want to pay tuppence for it.

How have all the changes we’ve spoken about affected publisher agreements with songwriters and composers?
It will be different for different publishers. We still have our vanilla deal here. I’m told that advances might not be at the stratospheric heights they once were, because if you thought your advance was driven by album sales, it would be very different now.

I would have thought things are tighter from a financial point of view. There are fewer publishers now so there’s less competition. And if there’s less competition you might say that’s not as good from a writer’s point of view. There have been very recent questions asked about the desirability of major companies converging. So I think, in certain sectors, particularly in the contemporary pop sector, I think it’s a tougher business from a publisher’s point of view and therefore it’s a tougher business from a writer’s point of view.

We interviewed Chris for our publishing feature Evolution not Revolution, printed in the current edition of M magazine.