‘There are an immense number of songwriters not making enough money to live on’

If it wasn’t for Randall Wixen, Tom Petty would be significantly less well off.

In the early Eighties, Wixen was trying to build a reputation as a forensic reviewer of artist royalty statements – a skill burnished during his college experience managing punk bands at UCLA.

To keep the money rolling in, he was also spending two days a week selling Los Angeles real estate.

One day, Wixen was presenting an open house in the Pacific Palisades, which just so happen to belong to James ‘J.Y’ Young – guitarist and songwriter in Chicago-born rock band Styx – who just so happened to be home that day.

It was a fateful meeting.

Wixen subsequently helped Young [score a record deal for his solo LP. As a result, he was introduced to Styx’s business manager – who asked if he could dig through royalty documentation for another client: Free Fallin’ star Petty.

“They threw me on the pile of Tom Petty royalty statements and said, see what you can find, kid,” Wixen recalls.

“I looked at the statement and his record label, MCA, had charged him for a certain amount as an advance. Then I looked at the next statement – and noticed they’d charged him for the same advance on two consecutive statements.

“I called someone up at MCA and asked: ‘Did he get two advances or did you charge him twice?’ They said it was a big mistake and couriered over a check.
“From that day on, Tom appreciated having me around…”

Nearly four decades on, Tom Petty remains on Wixen Music Publishing’s client roster amongst 2,000+ other names – including the likes of Neil Young, The Doors, John Prine, The Black Keys, Santana, Otis Redding, Journey and Rick James.

These songwriters (and/or their estates) entrust Randall Wixen’s team to studiously find and retrieve uncollected royalties from their past, while diligently ensuring that every penny owed today makes its way back to them.

Almost all of Wixen’s clients are signed purely on an administration basis. The company also specializes in the termination and reversion of copyrights from past publishing deals, in addition to standard publishing services like sync licensing and music registration around the world.

“This is a business of details – now more than ever.”

A hallmark of LA-based Wixen Music Publishing is its status both as an independent and family-run business.

Randall’s wife, Sharon Maroko Wixen, is a co-owner of the company (it was Sharon who kept a solid day job so Randall could pursue his music industry dream while he was still selling accommodation for people who weren’t in Styx).

“This is a business of details – now more than ever,” she notes of Wixen’s point of difference in the publishing world.

“We carry the same forensic focus into every aspect of what we do – from song registration onwards.”

Randall’s cousin , Naomi Asher, runs Wixen Music Ltd. in the UK, which boasts its own impressive roster of songwriters from Sir Tim Rice to Roger Daltrey, Shampoo, and Deacon Blue.

Asher also heads up the business’s global neighboring rights operation out of London.

“Our neighboring rights clients tend to be UK acts who haven’t had their repertoire properly registered, or US acts who don’t even realize they’re able to collect broadcast royalties in certain territories,” she says.

“Artists assume that the likes of PPL and others are collecting on all of their recordings – but that assumption just isn’t accurate. Our priority is to do the research and make sure everything they’re on is being claimed for.”

‘Doing the research’ – diligently and with a stoic refusal to give up until every penny is retrieved – is at the heart of Wixen’s philosophy, from its founder downwards.

As Tom Petty himself puts it: “Randall Wixen is that rare man of integrity in a business that… I’m not gonna call crooked, but I’m not gonna call it anything else.”

MBW sat down with Randall to ask all about Wixen’s defining principles, the challenges facing independent publishers today and the state of the modern music business…

What was the opportunity you first noticed when you created Wixen Music?

A lot of the bands I was managing at [UCLA] had publishing deals. I’d look at the statements and everything was wrong.

They had 12 songs on an album and only ten of them were paid; there’d be no radio airplay, meaning no-one had registered the songs with ASCAP or BMI.

“People are vastly underpaid out there, and in music publishing it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.”

I became a watchdog on the publishers for the bands I was working with. And I thought: ‘I’m good at this. I’m telling them where all their mistakes are – I might as well just do it for a living.’

We do a thorough audit – what we call a ‘desktop audit’ – for every client at Wixen.

People are vastly underpaid out there, and in music publishing it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. We’re professional squeaky wheels.

Most publishers participate in copyright ownership to some degree. Why don’t you?

We have from time-to-time but it’s rare. We believe people should retain their own copyrights.

This might sound trite but next to their children, for many songwriters their songs are the closest thing to their hearts.

One of the people we represent is a lady called Cynthia Weil. She’s featured as a major character in Beautiful – the Carole King musical.

“We believe people should retain their own copyrights.”

With her husband [Barry Mann], she wrote the song You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, which is the most publicly performed song of the 20th Century.

She ended up getting an offer to use the song in a commercial to sell condoms. It was a seven-figure offer.

She said: “You know I wouldn’t mind the money, but that song took me out of the Brill Building and bought me a home in Beverly Hills. I owe that song something better than selling rubbers.”

Do you find it personally upsetting when you read about songwriters selling their copyrights or doing cheapening sync deals?

No – it’s an individual choice.

We have plenty of clients who do lots of commercials – and plenty of clients like The Doors, Neil Young and Tom Petty who don’t like to put their songs out for advertising. And we have other clients with a nuanced take, like: ‘I will do this, but I won’t sell alcohol or tobacco.’

We’ve seen cases where there’s been very rich songwriters who’ve said, ‘If I give my kids a lump sum they’ll blow it in two years; I’d rather have them get annual income from my copyrights.’

Others say, ‘This whole business is going to hell in a hand-basket – let’s sell and get out while we still can!’

On that topic… it seems to be becoming a common trend that independent publishing companies are being sold. Imagem went the other week, Carlin and ole are believed to be on the block. Publishing copyrights seem to be enjoying boom years in terms of market demand. How might that affect the industry?

My crystal ball says we’re at a very bad point – rock bottom or close to it.

As the CRB hearings that are going on right now in the US and other different local legislation get changed, streaming will become a much more important and viable source of income for people who write songs or publish songs.

We’ll get to the point where [publishing] copyrights become more valuable again.

“My crystal ball says we’re at a very bad point – rock bottom or close to it.”

There’s been a sort of depression in the last few years [in mechanical rights] as record sales have dropped off to nothing because of streaming.

I for one don’t feel the streaming rights are yet equitable as willing-buyer, willing-seller – especially in the US, where they’re set by governments and statute.

We will get past that and to a more equitable situation. If I owned copyrights today I wouldn’t be selling them – I think we’re at the bottom of market right now.

How optimistic are you that there will be a re-balancing between publishing and masters, particularly in an era where – if you include Sony Corp – the three majors ‘labels’ own their respective publishing companies?

The question with those companies is this: if the money comes in, which pocket do they want it to land in so they can keep more of it?

It’s become really clear that they get to keep more of it if it goes into the artist/master side than if it goes into the publishing/writer side.

“even if you put the three majors together, I don’t think you equal 50% of the [publishing] market.”

But even if you put the three majors together, I don’t think you equal 50% of the [publishing] market. They will slow down the re-equalization process, but I’m fairly optimistic that it will happen.

There are an immense number of songwriters not making enough money to live on today. And at the same time there are certain [tech] companies waiting to do their IPOs so they can pocket billions.

Is the music industry making progress in dissolving the idea of music as ‘free’ in society – or is it becoming more pervasive?

The great irony is that music is being consumed at greater levels than it has ever been before – that includes programming and using music to sell products or services.

The flip side to that is that less is being paid for it. So we have a very in-demand product that is not being paid sufficiency, especially compared to what it used to be paid.

How do you re-educate the public on this? I fear the genie is out of the bottle.

“I fear the genie is out of the bottle.”

The realization that ‘people have created what I’m enjoying and deserve to be paid for it’ – that process, I think, will be incremental now.

Free streaming might become less enjoyable; there might be intermediate subscription services that are at a lower fee.

When cable TV first came out, to replace terrestrial TV with an antennae on your roof, it was very inexpensive – how could you charge someone too much for a product they already got for free? Now there’s probably no-one with a dish that’s not paying $100 a month for programming.

Maybe, hopefully, it will be a similar process in music.

What do you make of Amazon‘s move into the streaming market with Echo, including its $3.99-a-month deal locked to a single speaker?

The general perception amongst those [peers] I’ve spoken to is that Amazon have shown a fairer approach to music publishers than some of the other services.

What about the argument that digital services like Spotify have a business model that’s already under strain? If they pay more to the music business it could really hurt them?

Publishers, Artists and Labels don’t have any obligation to support another industry’s business model. Especially if the business model is based on being able to purchase the product it sells at sub-market fees – fees that are not based on a willing buyer, willing seller negotiation.

Spotify would obviously love to have the cheapest product costs possible.

“Spotify would obviously love to have the cheapest product costs possible.”

They get to keep what they don’t have to spend, and they aren’t sitting around saying “Let’s make sure the songwriters and publishers get a fair shake.”

So to be really blunt, it’s not their business model I care about, it is ours. But there is a way that it can be mutually beneficial.

We’re just not there yet as long as publishers and writers don’t have a real say in what they sell their product for.

What’s your response to the entry into the US market of private collection societies like SESAC and Irving Azoff‘s GMR?

I wish ASCAP and BMI had more latitude in what they were able to do versus GMR or SESAC, because they’re governed under Consent Decrees – which are basically a preliminary finding of outdated antitrust actions which took place in the 1940s.

So any time ASCAP wants to charge more or make an argument that what they’re getting is under market value, they have to get a judge to agree to that.

GMR and SESAC are not saddled with these restrictions. I’d like the handcuffs to come off ASCAP and BMI.

Wixen Music’s revenues are made up of 50% sync, 35% performance, 10% mechanical and 5% other. Sticking with mechanical, is that shrinking to nothing?

It’s certainly shrinking. It’s tremendously worrisome if that revenue stream is not made up elsewhere.

Basically it comes down to how may streams of a song equal the worth of a sale.

We had a client who had 60m streams on YouTube and he got $3,700 for those plays [the equivalent of $0.00006 per stream].

If a fraction of those 60m had bought the album he’d have made a lot more.

Blanket licensing: is the way it operates in the UK fair on songwriters?

It depends on what kind of blanket licenses you’re talking about.

If you’re talking about performances [ie. radio or TV plays of tracks], it’s a good way of handling things. It’s not the same case for synchronization [ie. for a TV drama, in-house ad etc.].

The distinction between performances and synchronization is that in performances, you’re generally not creating a derivative work that embodies other copyrighted material – it’s just being disseminated over the airwaves or the internet.

“It’s like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa.”

With a synchronization, you end up with your work being combined with other creators’ works.

It’s like drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. The artist should have an opportunity to determine whether they want that mustache on the painting or not and on what terms.

We have a client who wrote a song about his wife’s suicide and it was being used in a cheesy, demeaning manner on a [UK] soap opera. He called me up and yelled at me, and said: ‘Why did you license this song?!’

I told him I didn’t, it was part of a blanket. He got about £15 because under 15 seconds was used.

I have a problem with that kind of blanket licensing where you don’t have the right to approve how your creative contribution is being [used], and I have a problem with the fact that you don’t get to have an open two-sided negotiation about what you’ll be compensated for when you have licenses you want to approve.

Do your clients feel the same way?

I have been contacted by a number of clients that have strongly demanded they be taken out of blanket synchronization schemes.

Many writers in the UK are just becoming aware that all their works are being licensed without specific approval or review.

Not all songs are worth the same. Some songs are vastly more important to a particular use than others.

We’ve been contacted by a number of European writers who have heard that we’ve pulled writers out of certain blanket license schemes, and are now questioning the system. I think we’re making progress on changing the UK model.

“Not all songs are worth the same. Some songs are vastly more important to a particular use than others.”

You had The Office with Ricky Gervais in the UK (pictured). I’d get £85 for a use of one of our songs in that show.

In the States, we had The Office with Steve Carell; we’d get £25,000 for a use. And both shows aired worldwide.

Publishers don’t control performing rates and they don’t control mechanical/reproduction rates. [Sync] is the last thing we can price according to market value.

If the powers that be take that away, we’ve lost our right to price “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” differently than “Surfing Bird” by The Trashmen. They’ve taken away our last bit of self-determination.

Do you have concerns over the commission rates charged by separate collection societies the world over, and would you like to see the entire practice become more globalized?

Government-run or non-profits have less motivation to be efficient than private organizations such as SESAC or GMR.

But if someone’s taking an 18% commission for their overhead and it should be 12%, I still don’t think that’s close to being the biggest issue publishers face right now.

What about new entrants and new financing in music publishing? It’s been shaken up by the likes of BMG and Kobalt over the past decade, and there could be more coming…

There are a lot of funds coming into music publishing that are more interested in building market share than they are building value for their investors.

I believe that is what’s taught in business school as the ‘insane competitor model’. We’ll just have to wait them out.

“I believe that is what’s taught in business school as the ‘insane competitor model’. We’ll just have to wait them out.”

What we do that’s different is we’re very bespoke and hands-on. We rely on technology but not as our primary focus. We rely on people, primarily, to maximize our client’s collections and rates.

We have people who know every song in the catalogue, know who wrote them and what to look for. If you’re just circulating files to societies and waiting for your money, it isn’t nearly as effective.

Why is working with family so important to you?

It’s very interesting that the music publishing business has been for many, many companies throughout the world, a family-run business.

Look at Kassner Music, Cafe Concerto, Budde Music, Clipper’s Music, Fermata Music, Carlin Music, Peer Music, Melodie De Welt and ABKCO… this is evidence that, to put it in London cabbie talk, the knowledge is being passed down.

Someone who’s job-hopping or a hedge fund pumping money into publishing, they just can’t have the same depth of knowledge and passion.

You offer many premium clients top service, but you don’t seem in a hurry to build Wixen into a huge market share animal. You stay at around 2,000 clients and are judicious in who you pick to join you. Why, personally, don’t you want more?

I hope it doesn’t sound stupid: I have enough.

I don’t feel like I need to own a private jet. And I don’t want to answer to a board of directors who don’t understand the business and who have to make quarterly numbers at the expense of doing the right thing.Music Business Worldwide

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