On… the value of ‘storytelling’ in the marketplace of ideas

Credit: Alex from the Rock

The following op/ed comes from Eamonn Forde (pictured inset), a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig and Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates. UK-based Forde’s new book, 1999: The Year The Record Industry Lost Control, is out now via Omnibus Press.

Podcast companies are, they love to tell us, “passionate” about “storytelling”. And some of them truly are. They can seek out incredible stories themselves, proving the format is absolutely as journalistically valid as newspapers, radio and TV. Or they work directly with authors to turn their original articles and their books into podcasts, seeing partnerships as the way to present the stories in the best way.

And then there are the other podcast companies who seem to confuse something being published with something now being public domain. These companies represent an insidious new strain of ideas piracy, where they do not believe in licensing or respecting intellectual property. These companies only value writers for the ideas they can “reappropriate” from them.

They, with their questionable “business” models propped up with VC money, believe they have a god-given, a pod-given, right to barge through life with impunity.

I know this only too well. In the spirit of “storytelling”, here is what is currently happening to me. I spent two years researching and writing a book. I interviewed a lot of people for it, most of whom had never spoken on the subject matter before.

Many had to speak to me anonymously and it was only through my connections and my (what I hope is a good) reputation in the music business that they agreed to speak to me, trusting that I would protect them. The vast majority of the information in my book had never been made public before.

I was approached by two individuals who wanted to find a way to turn my book into a TV show or documentary. They went out to raise interest. They told me the best route was to do it as a podcast first as that could become a feeder project for TV. They eventually found a podcast company, one that had recently raised millions of pounds in funding, who “loved” the book and wanted to turn it into a podcast.

The podcast company got in touch, saying they wished for me to come in as a consultant. I told them to license the book from my publisher. They insisted they did not need to as my book was only going to be a “small” part of a much bigger story they were going to tell.

They offered me a consultancy fee which I accepted in principle – based on this project not cannibalising my own book. I had signed no contract with them, but they had asked me to send them my book contract to “reassure” me there were no issues to worry about. I would not agree to that because it seemed less than ethical.

Things went quiet and then they told me they had sold the podcast idea to a major media company and it was all happening soon. More silence. Then a major source in my book contacted me to say this podcast company had approached them to be interviewed for the podcast and was told I was directly involved in it. They wanted to check this was, in their words, “legit”. I told them it was very much not “legit”. I soon discovered that multiple people had been approached where my name and involvement was being used to get them to speak.

The podcast company finally approached me to start my “consultancy”. They wanted to interview me (my feeling was they wanted to get me to rehash stories from my book, thereby “sidestepping” any need to license the book and – what’s this? – possibly putting me in breach of contract with my publisher).

My suspicion was that they believed, by interviewing me and persuading me to effectively do a licence-free cover version of my own book, they could get me to unwittingly burn down my own IP and author rights. Unsurprisingly, I declined.

They also, and this really gets to the nub of what I believed to be a growing contempt for journalistic ethics within “storytelling”, wanted me to tell them the names of people who had spoken to me anonymously for the book so they could interview them for the podcast. This was something I would never do.

I have had to spend the past few months professionally distancing myself from this podcast. I have requested multiple times that the podcast company disclose the names of all the people they approached using my name to open doors. They refuse to do so. They also have blanked multiple requests to answer questions I have about how they have approached all of this.

People involved in assorted ways in this planned podcast come from the music world, the book world and the film world. They clearly understand copyright and its value. Standing up for copyright and creators is, it seems, something they view as entirely conditional. Someone far less charitable than me might parallel them with the Judas goat, but I certainly wouldn’t.

Podcasting seems to still be a world where frameworks of moral behaviour and appropriate use of outside content have not yet been definitively established.

There are lots of complications around licensing music into podcasts, for example. Podcast companies might feel that licensing terms are too onerous and expensive to get full tracks, but they mostly respect music copyrights and work with short clips.

Even the long-running Desert Island Discs, built entirely around a weekly castaway enthusing about music on BBC Radio 4, in its podcast incarnation has to start with a disclaimer (“For rights reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast”).

But the excellent Song Exploder series has managed to include the full track at the end of each podcast analysing a song with the writers and artists involved. It is not easy to license full tracks, but it is possible.

Licensing of music, regardless of platform or media, has a long history, clear rules and solid precedents. We see breaches of copyright being slapped down all the time.

Not clearing rights properly in advance can prove incredibly costly, as The Verve learned in 1997 when they found themselves at the sharp end of negotiations with Allen Klein over ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’. Richard Ashcroft was to receive no songwriting royalties from the song for 22 years until Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, in his words, “agreed that they are happy for the writing credit to exclude their names and all their royalties derived from the song they will now pass to me”.

Klein was someone, as Fred Goodman’s 2015 book reveals in horrifying detail, you absolutely would not have wanted to fuck with.

Currently, Kanye West is also finding out that sampling music without permission comes with painful and expensive consequences. Ozzy Osbourne was far from pleased when West wanted to sample one of his songs and then went public that the song had been used without his approval anyway. West is also being sued by the estate of Donna Summer for what they claim is unauthorised use of ‘I Feel Love’ in one of his tracks.

Licensing of journalism and regulating the marketplace of ideas around podcasting is seen somehow as much more nebulous than music copyright, enabling duplicitous operators to sniff out loopholes where they can. And, it could be argued, journalism and ideas are being treated as being significantly and inherently less valuable than music here. As I have found out, with escalating horror, I am not the only person something like this has happened to. It is soul-crushing to know that I will not be the last.

Music companies are increasingly involved in the podcasting business. This is a moment for the whole music business to do something proactive by conducting due diligence on any podcasts they are involved in order to ensure no one further down the food chain is seeing their rights and their creative work being trampled on for someone else’s commercial benefit.

For some podcast companies, the only “storytelling” they are “passionate” about is that of mendaciously self-interested fiction.Music Business Worldwide

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