Maria Forte

The digital publishing expert explains the need for publishers and record labels to come together, and shares her thoughts on how the music industry can make the most of digital.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 27 Jun 2012
  • min read
Maria Forte has been in music publishing since the late 70s. She worked on Radiohead’s landmark In Rainbows and The King of Limbs albums and runs a consultancy for artists, publishers and music businesses.

She specialises in rights management in the digital environment and her clients include Warner Chappell, Fintage House, Soul II Soul and The Wedding Present.

Here she explains the need for publishers and record labels to come together, and shares her thoughts on how the music industry can make the most of digital.

How has the business changed since you first started in publishing?
Apart from the obvious – that is, record sales are diminishing – splits have changed. A publisher’s retained share is less. In 1979, 50/50 deals were still possible! Then there was a period when Universal and EMI were thrashing it out together, but there came a point when the line had to be drawn. The whole thing about market share kicked in, where publishers thought, ‘We must get this at all costs to maintain our market share’. But what’s the point of doing a deal if you can’t make any money out of it? It’s had an effect on the market as a whole.

How have the changes in the record business affected music publishing?
The sync area has become more prolific and structured because you need to have people who know what advertisers are looking for, what music they want, what films are coming up, where they can use music and who’s looking after music supervision. It’s all become a lot more professional, as opposed to hit and miss, as it was in the old days.

Also changed is the recording and product function at publishers. For example, Chrysalis turned Echo into an incubator label. They signed writers who didn’t have a label deal and would release their early material, giving the artists the opportunity to perhaps go onto something with a full label set up. That happens more and more I think. Publishers are setting up artist services, where they help writers release product. The digital format enables that a lot more too. It’s not really that new a concept; it’s gone through lulls and has picked up again recently.

What tools do publishers need in this changing industry?
Common sense and a really good understanding of how digital works. One of the big eye openers for me was when I worked at some digital music services. I had to explain how the publishing rights set up actually worked and what that meant to a digital service. I was a little embarrassed to tell them about Europe and how you can’t get a true one stop pan European licence (let alone a global licence).

There are multi agreements needed for each territory – but just in different combinations. A local licence will always be needed with the society of the local territory of release because they still represent the residual copyrights that don’t fall under the major pan Euro deals in place with the larger publishers and publisher entities. You have to explain how those rights flow too. People have got to get a proper grasp of that and how the digital environment works and make this an easier process.

How can the industry make the most of digital?
In digital, metadata is so important for rights owners and writers to get paid and one of the big things is composer information. In 2009 I did a paper called Metadata Matters for the Pop Publishers’ Committee, which talked about composer information being absent from metadata. It occurred to me that, in part, there is a simple way to deal with money falling out in relation to exploitation on a digital service.

As a publisher, make sure the metadata of your composers’ works has the composer information on it. Go and find out if it does and help put it on there, just like we used to do with label copy in the 80s, when there was a great dialogue between publishers and record labels. Digital services generally want to pay the money; they don’t want a non-payment of royalties issue hanging over them. The problem arises when they are invoiced by societies for over 100 percent. However, it’s often difficult to validate a claim either way without composer information!

The relationship between labels and publishers hasn’t always been the best, even within the same corporate ownership, but there should definitely be more dialogue between these parties because we all actually work in the music industry. It’s not just about record sales. We want our composers to get paid. And to do that you need to have composer information on the metadata – that would be a big help. Until the past couple of years this has been absent.

Who’s taking the metadata on board and who hasn’t?
There was very much a resistance to this, with some labels saying, ‘This is nothing to do with us, we don’t look after writers’. But then you have to point out that a lot of their artists are in fact the writers of their own tracks, so in essence, in my mind, they are wilfully obstructing their publishing royalties. Many are including it now for frontline and new releases, but where it has become more of an issue is with back catalogue. There needs to be a big back catalogue exercise. Maybe there should be some sort of data migration from a good source to fill in the holes. Something needs to be done though.

Do you think the industry is moving in the right direction then?
I think the creation of the Global Repertoire Database can certainly help to distribute the money. I find it an incredibly interesting project.

Do you think it will help to bring in more digital royalties?
Yes. It should help identify rights owners and their shares on a global basis, so the over invoicing and uncertainty is removed. With digital it’s all about scale and it’s got to be simple. As far as the 0.0001p transactions go, they’re like the credit card transactions of the music business. We need to simplify the rights identification process so this becomes less difficult to start with.

So before, shops wouldn’t accept card payments for purchases under a fiver but now you can beep your debit card on a reader in Starbucks to pay for a single coffee…
Exactly! It’s all to do with systems and us getting up to speed quickly. That’s been quite slow so far. Publishing as an entity has been hampered by its age old systems. And also, we’re fragmented. With records, there’s usually only one master owner and one person who collects the money. But with publishing the nature of our business makes it difficult because it’s so fragmented in itself. It creates a granular picture. I find it really interesting but it’s also mind-boggling.

I think a big mistake has been made in trying to fit the digital environment into the traditional environment because of course they’re not the same thing. There we are banging our round peg into the square hole when perhaps we should be thinking to adapt the square hole into something that’s going to fit better. And it’s taken a long time to come to that conclusion. It’s been more than 10 years now.

How do you see the industry changing over the next decade?
Of course digital is going to be a big game changer. There will be so many models to choose from and hopefully so many opportunities. I just hope that the reduction in physical sales will be replaced with the digital alternative.

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