SXSW: royalties in the digital age

Music fans are streaming and downloading more music than ever across borders and different platforms, but how are collecting societies adapting to the changing marketplace?

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 16 Mar 2012
  • min read
Music fans are streaming, downloading and sharing more music than ever across borders and different platforms, but how are collecting societies adapting to the changing marketplace?

Today’s panel at SXSW, entitled Do We Need Music Collecting Societies in the Digital Age?, brought together some leading thinkers to discuss this issue.

The session was moderated by BBC’s Head of Rights Peter Bradbury, who was joined by Jez Bell, Director of Licensing at Omnifone, Spotify’s Head of Licensing James Duffett-Smith, ASCAP’s Matt DeFilippis and Andy Harrower, Head of Broadcast Licensing at PRS for Music.

Bell spoke about the challenges of launching the Rara music service simultaneously in 20 territories and the need to have the same conversations with many different societies to secure the rights for all repertoire. While it is now possible to secure pan-territorial rights for the repertoire controlled by the larger publishers, Bell said that 'local repertoire is very important', and this means having licensing discussions with many different entities.

Duffett–Smith spoke of the challenges that Spotify faces when dealing with the day-to-day administration: 'Societies don’t talk to each other or agree what they each have rights to. Two societies sometimes insist on payment for the same thing they claim to own.'

Meanwhile, Harrower said that societies were working hard to deal with these issues and pointed to the development of the Global Repertoire Database (GRD)  – a cross-industry initiative with the aim of reducing the duplication that exists in the collecting society network and establishing a single, authoritative database which will enable music users to quickly determine who owns a musical work in a given territory.

Bell, a member of the GRD working group, said that he had been impressed with the speed at which the project was moving, especially when compared to other cross-industry standardisation initiatives which can easily be 10 years in the making.

DeFilippis then reminded the audience that, despite some of the difficulties that digital music services encounter when dealing with collecting societies, new media still accounts for less than 10 percent of ASCAP’s collections. Harrower said that the same was the case for PRS for Music, but stressed that it was 'a key part of what we do and an important part of the future.'

He then referred to the blanket licence which was recently agreed between PRS for Music and the BBC – a single licence which covers 10 television channels, over 40 radio stations and online services such as the iPlayer. Bradbury agreed that this was an example of collective licensing working at its best. Bradbury concluded the lively panel discussion by asking the audience if they believed collecting societies were still necessary in the digital age. The result, on a show of hands, was an unanimous 'Yes'.

Harrower said that collecting societies were needed now more than ever, as content, including music, is now rapidly disseminated in many different ways all over the world. And, through their blanket licences, collecting societies ensure that businesses can easily and quickly get all the rights they need.

Speaking to M before travelling to Texas earlier this week, Harrower said: ‘Given the millions of uses of thousands and thousands of musical works every day, licensing and clearing on a case-by-case basis just wouldn’t work.'

Today, after a lively panel discussion about the complexities of music licensing, Harrower said a straw poll of the SXSW audience showed unanimous support for the need for collecting societies in the digital age.