Lessons for DIY Musicians: II
Editor’s Note: This is the second of two installments dealing with DIY issues. We printed the first in August 2014. There, Fuller covered music production, distribution, and promotion. Here, he tackles performance related topics and music licensing.
Performance, a specialized form of promoting, has long required independent musicians to hustle for gigs. The web, as with other areas, has made this, too, easier for musicians. They no longer package and deliver recordings to venue promoters, they just email a link to a website where their music can be streamed. Sonicbids has pioneered using the web to connect performers with event planners and live venues.1 The internet, moreover, has created new performance spaces altogether. Ustream, Justin.tv, Big Live, and JustJamIt allow musicians to live-stream traditional shows or web-only performances.2 Additionally, musicians can now perform through avatars in virtual environments like Second Life.3 These trends are likely to strengthen with time as virtual reality becomes less and less distinguishable from first life.4
Lesson 4 – Divide Yourself & Conquer. Whereas other forms of promotion are an up front investment with uncertain returns, playing live is a relatively stable way for DIY musicians to earn income.5 DIY musicians should try to play out as much as possible. However, physical venues will require booked acts to honor “radius exclusivity”; meaning, DIY musicians that commit to playing a club are often not allowed under their booking contract to perform within a given geographic radius of the club for a set length of time.6 In the internet and digital age, however, geography is no longer our master.7 Hence, DIY musicians should explore performance opportunities in cyberspace, open to the possibility of adopting different stage personas, or alter egos, to meet diverse audience demands in virtual worlds.
Musicians in the U.S. earn four main kinds of music licensing revenue: royalties from terrestrial radio, compulsory fees from cover songs, sync license fees (from licensing music to synchronize with audiovisual works), and royalties for digital streams of sound recordings.8 Royalties from terrestrial radio have been harder to come by since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated radio, resulting in the consolidation of ownership in the radio market and a subsequent decrease in playlist diversity.9 Nonetheless, performance rights organizations (PROs), which monitor the airtime of all songs in their registry, now harness the power of IT to improve the accuracy of their monitoring and, hence, their songwriter services.10
The information revolution has improved songwriters’ chances of being covered insofar as it increases their ability to share their songs with potential cover artists. Songwriters’ sync license opportunities, however, have increased dramatically in the digital age, as the volume of entertainment content has ballooned―from cable TV, to web-based shows, to video games.11 Music libraries have popped up in the digital marketplace to connect songwriters with content buyers.12 While these warehouses of digital tracks have been criticized for diluting both the quality of the licensing market and how lucrative it is,13 they meet a demand for quick deals on short notice, created by the incessant turnover of new media.
Lastly, the digital age has ushered in a new, statutorily-created form of licensing revenue―digital sound recording streams.14 Sound-Exchange is the PRO that collects royalties from satellite radio (e.g. SIRIUS XM), internet radio (e.g. Pandora), cable TV music channels, and other digital platforms on behalf of sound recording owners. In 2013, SoundExchange allocated a record $590 million in royalties, a 28% increase from 2012 (the former record year).15
Lesson 5 – Register Your Songs with PROs and Do Business with Music Libraries That Offer Non-Exclusive Licensing Opportunities. The lesson here is straightforward. DIY musicians must register with ASCAP (The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) or BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) in order to collect broadcast royalties.16 Moreover, after signing up with a digital aggregator, per Lesson 2 (see MBJ, Aug. 2014), a musician’s music will be available to stream on many digital platforms. Meaning, musicians should also register their songs with SoundExchange. As for doing business with music libraries that offer non-exclusive licensing opportunities, the logic is: what’s the harm in it? At worst, the musician earns nothing. At best, the musician earns revenue, without sacrificing the potential to earn more revenue. The concern about “selling out” is passé.17 Musicians should pursue every reasonable licensing opportunity available, unless it precludes other licensing opportunities or truly diminishes their creative control over their works. Of course, if DIY-ers are concerned about being credited for music obtained through non-exclusive licenses, or have any other legitimate concerns, they should diligently research the business practices of any music library they are thinking of transacting with.18
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Prior to rise of the internet and digital technologies, barriers to enter the music market were daunting. In fact, these barriers still exist in the traditional music industry.19 However, the web and web-based technologies present exciting opportunities for DIY musicians. Low production costs make it easier for songwriters and performers to maintain creative control of their works. New communication platforms allow them to reach potential fans and business partners. Digital music marketplaces make room for even the most obscure recording artists.
Songwriting and performing music are still super competitive occupations, fraught with daunting uncertainty; but today looks like a better day than ever before to make a dent in the music universe (at the risk of being too cloy in cloning a famous digital age mantra). The DIY musician should view their venture as an entrepreneurial one, because it will involve a lot of experimentation and risk. But with no need to relinquish creative control over songs, recordings, or branding, at least their destiny is self-guided.20 “The new does not have to be scary and it’s a lot less risky than it ever was.”21 The five lessons described in this series, three of which were printed in August 2014, serve as a reasonable starting point for the DIY musician who is thinking strategically about how to optimize their chance of survival in the jungle of the digital music age (lessons I-III were printed in Aug. 2014)
Nick Fuller is a graduate of Northwestern University School of Law and a musician that has worked in the performing, licensing, and booking end of the business.