If songs are more important than ever, why don’t more music publishers act like it?

The following MBW blog – which first appeared in our newly-published Music Business USA magazine – comes from Downtown Music Holdings CEO, Justin Kalifowitz (pictured). Downtown, which recently acquired CD Baby parent AVL, provides end-to-end services to artists, songwriters, labels, music publishers and other rights holders.

In late February 2019, the season finale of The Masked Singer – a reality competition TV program that features celebrities performing popular songs in elaborate costumes concealing their identities – scored massive primetime ratings in the US for the FOX broadcast network.

In fact, the entire first season was so successful the network has already committed for two additional seasons. Originating in South Korea, the U.S. edition is one of several versions from around the world, including China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia, and forthcoming franchises in France, Germany, Mexico, Spain, The Netherlands, and Portugal.

This is simply one recent example of the ways in which songs, distinct from any single recording, have regained a cultural prominence on a scale not seen since the early 1960s. Yet despite this ‘song renaissance’, the indispensable contributions of songwriters continue to be obscured and largely undervalued. That’s why music publishers need to work together globally to champion the art of songwriting to ensure that creators are properly recognized, valued, and celebrated.

For more than a decade, traditional media has built international television franchises such as The Voice and Idol on the back of song copyrights. Film directors from Sophia Coppola and Martin Scorsese to Wes Anderson and The Coen Brothers often dedicate their soundtracks to reimagining songs from a bygone era.

Countless brands around the world, including car manufacturers, consumer goods, retail outlets, and technology companies, among others, have used cover songs in their advertising campaigns to connect with consumers.  Digital platforms, like YouTube, TikTok and now, more officially, Instagram, have built multi-billion dollar enterprises fueled by fan engagement with song copyrights – be they cover recordings, lyric videos, instructional music performance, or personal user-generated content (UGC).

In most cases, the songwriters whose work served as a foundational element to these businesses didn’t receive the recognition or even the income their contributions warranted.

Historically, songwriters have seen more than 75% of their income subject to a complex web of government regulation, thanks in large part to antiquated copyright laws.

While local and regional advancements, such as the Music Modernization Act and the European Copyright Directive are steps in the right direction, addressing systemic challenges on a global scale will require the industry to educate and re-educate lawmakers, regulators, and judges, among others, on the foundational basics of how the music business works. But in the near term, music publishers should consider the options we have to elevate the art of songwriting in the public consciousness.

“Here in the US, we fragment industry-facing songwriter awards by collection society and genre to our detriment.”

We can all agree that music award shows globally could use a rethink, and that presents an opportunity to increase the visibility of the craft of songwriting. Here in the US, we fragment industry-facing songwriter awards by collection society and genre to our detriment.

Producing a single awards program to celebrate songwriters would not only be more comprehensive, but it would allow for more resources to support efforts like the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) Gold and Platinum Awards and other initiatives that could more actively drive visibility among consumer audiences.

At a minimum, music publishers should support existing media that highlight the art of songwriting, such as Music Business Worldwide, Rolling Stone and of course, American Songwriter. But more broadly, music publishers should develop consumer-facing marketing and communications departments capable of sharing the stories of their songs and the craft of their songwriters far and wide.

Consumer media outlets are already clued in to the growing interest in songs with established columns and features like The New York Times’ “Diary of a Song”, the Financial Times’ “Life of a Song”, and The Guardian’s “How We Made,” all of which reach far wider audiences. NBC has perhaps taken the boldest step yet with the launch of Songland, a Voice-style competition show for which Downtown client Ryan Tedder serves as Executive Producer.

“Publishers should negotiate for on-screen songwriter credit as an important element of their digital agreements.”

Music publishers should also be pushing for increased visibility as a standard point across contract negotiations. When licensing digital services, publishers should insist on the development of a “search by songwriter” feature and facilitate this through better data exchanges across the value chain.

As labels and DSPs look to expand how they monetize music videos, publishers should negotiate for on-screen songwriter credit as an important element of these agreements.

For services with artist and label portals, we should be working hand-in-hand to develop integrations that enable the distribution of lyrics, songwriter bios, photos, social media and other information that can be displayed in-app alongside corresponding recordings.

With recent news that Billboard is planning to recognize songwriters who contribute to the Hot 100, music publishers should take this moment to lobby for the creation of both national and global song charts.

In an era where song copyrights are more important than ever, companies interested in measuring impact should consider not only the success of a single recording pushed by one particular label, but rather the extraordinary impact of hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of professional and UGC covers, foreign language adaptations, lyric videos and music instructionals that pay homage to our clients’ words and music. This collective global engagement would be a far more accurate measure of the most impactful song in the world.

“I’m sure if the broader industry prioritized promoting the art of songwriting, we’d unearth many more opportunities to celebrate the work of our creative partners.”

This is by no means an exhaustive list; I’m sure if the broader industry prioritized promoting the art of songwriting, we’d unearth many more opportunities to celebrate the work of our creative partners.

This recognition would not only bring them much deserved notoriety, but would meaningfully impact our legislative initiatives in Washington D.C. and Brussels (and maybe, one day, Beijing) to ultimately result in fair and just compensation for their extraordinary work.

After all, if those of us who have been entrusted by songwriters to protect their rights and develop new creative opportunities don’t vigilantly advocate alongside creators, who will?Music Business Worldwide

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