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The royalties maze, or how creators' money is getting skimmed along the way 

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If you're an artist wondering what's the deal with receiving quarterly royalties checks that aren't worth a coffee cup, or fans who are wondering why artists complain about not being able to make ends meet, you should have a look at the chart below, which attempts to clarify the meandering ways royalties are prevented to go into your pocket and instead end up in multiple third parties each taking their "royal" cut. 

This chart below from TheMusicMaze.com is specifically about the US, and to be honest, I'm not quite sure how the recently passed MMA bill is going to make things better, but just be aware that each country has its own byzantine way of screwing up artists when it comes to collecting royalties... The names of the entities involved will differ, whether you're in Canada, Australia, the UK or the EU, but everywhere the principles are the same: when it comes to royalties, why make it simple when it can be complicated enough to skim money from artists along the way?

In defense of production 

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I’ve often heard the argument that production is the bane of “authentic” music and that one should not waste too much time to record and release music. This can be summarized as a “Get on with it and move on!” mindset (which I read someone say as a philosophy that I cannot say I adhere much with). Let’s take your iPhone, record your band practice and release that!

Is production bad?

Some will also argue that this is how it’s always been with early folk music and country music and their motto of “3 chords and the truth”… I would say that the 3 chords in that case hardly account for music, when what matters here is the poetry or the message, not really the music which is mostly used as a simple background.

There’s also two points raised by the proponents of the quick and dirty philosophy: 1/ look at punk music and how it effectively fought against the over-produced music of the late seventies (mainly hair metal and disco), and 2/ look at today’s top 40 music and how it makes up for its lack of substance by over-production.

Note that in both cases, the point is raised against “over” production. But to me these two points fail to recognize that over-production is actually bad production.

Over-production

As much as I agree that polishing a turd, which is what a good percentage of mainstream music is about, is not working that well and no matter how much production tricks are (ab)used, a bland song will always remain a bland song (and note that in these cases most over-hyped pop “songs” also rely on 3 chords for the most part), there is still something to be said against releasing raw recordings, and making sure your song is arranged and recorded properly and shines as much as it should. It seems to me like a good idea to produce a good recording, if only to give you an edge against the millions of badly recorded songs that are inflicted upon us by amateur enthusiasts with little background in music, recording and production, the end result of which would have been called demo in another era, something that hints at what the song could end up being if it were properly done, except it isn’t.

I contend that recorded music is an art form in itself, and I will argue that recorded music is also totally different from live music.

Live music vs recordings

Live music has for itself the sheer excitation of high volume, anticipation of a crowd, communion of spirits, spontaneity of improvisation. Yet more often than not, it is blasted from bad mono PA in less than ideal places and with a sound that is less than pristine, and with performances that are not always up to par…

In contrast, a record is (supposed to be) the ultimate expression of an artistic point of view, it is often the result of days, weeks, months of efforts to capture the best performance with every nuance, deliver the best sound, with clarity and power, and nothing is spared to achieve this goal.
A record should stand for itself as an expression with its own value, one that can withstand the test of time, and as such it is very different from a live performance.

What is production?

Ultimately production is nothing but a way to achieve the best possible result, to shine a light on what makes a song special, highlight the mood and vibe, and perfectly capture the musical spark, that special moment in time, that combination of song-writing talent, arrangement and performance, and make it timeless.

And it’s not at all about cheating (which in some extreme case like nowadays pop, it unfortunately is), aligning to a grid or auto-tuning to death. In effect, a good production might actually mean keeping the human errors, the idiosyncrasies of an artist performance, instead of correcting them: perfect production doesn’t mean robotic perfection, quite the contrary. The idea is to preserve the artist’s expression conveying the fullest emotion, which is the crucial thing that production is meant to highlight.

To those who say production is inherently bad, and is basically killing music’s “authenticity”, I say you’re talking nonsense.

Why it matters

I realize that this is my opinion and it’s not shared by everyone, and that’s fine.
Personally, I stand by timeless masterpieces like “Dark Side of the Moon” and many other records of equivalent perfection of sound and emotion. There’s a difference between The Beatles “Sergeant Pepper” and a live recording at the Shea Stadium, and I believe the former is infinitely more listenable than the latter.

The world doesn’t need more of the tired litany of poorly recorded acoustic covers, half-baked mashups, back-alley recording and YouTube iPhone after-thought rehearsal boring delivery, and I will defend the relevance of good production while trying to achieve myself, with my limited home studio means and abilities, the same kind of timeless output as some of the greats… 

I’m not saying I will ever rise to such level, but I sure will continue defending what seems to be a dying art in this era of fast food recordings and mindless consumption on streaming platforms. As usual, YMMV.

Is the proliferation of indie streaming platforms hurting unsigned artists? 

A new blog post on Music Think Tank that you can read here:

http://www.musicthinktank.com/blog/is-the-proliferation-of-indie-streaming-platforms-hurting-un.html

FYI, here's a list (probably far from exhaustive) of streaming platforms, from big corporate to independent (I'm not advocating any of them but this is just so that you get a sense of the "proliferation" I'm talking about):

Big corporate platforms:
https://itunes.apple.com/ 
https://www.spotify.com/ 
https://play.google.com/ 
https://music.amazon.com/ 
https://www.deezer.com/ 
https://www.iheart.com/ 
https://napster.com/ 
https://www.pandora.com/ 
https://www.shazam.com/ 
https://tidal.com/ 
https://music.youtube.com/ 
https://www.facebook.com/ 

Outsiders:
https://bandcamp.com/ 
https://www.reverbnation.com/ 
https://soundcloud.com/ 

Focused on licensing but also streaming:
https://www.taxi.com/ 
https://www.indabamusic.com/ 
https://www.musicxray.com/ 
https://www.songtradr.com/ 
https://www.musicgateway.com/ 
https://musicvine.com/ 
https://artlist.io/ 
https://www.musicbed.com/ 
https://www.marmosetmusic.com/ 
https://soundstripe.com/ 
https://songbay.co/
https://www.epidemicsound.com/ 
https://www.soundsnap.com/ 
https://www.audiosocket.com/ 
https://www.soundvault.tv/ 
http://brandsforbands.com/ 
http://www.instantlicensing.com/ 
https://meta-music.com/ 
https://www.synchtank.com/ 
https://www.sourceaudio.com/ 
http://www.fliktrax.com/ 

Pure streaming/discovery:
https://www.whoozl.com/ 
https://drooble.com/ 
https://www.melobeemusic.com/ 
https://qwaqq.com/ 
https://louder.me/ 
https://noisetrade.com/ 
https://www.jamendo.com/ 
https://8tracks.com/ 
https://www.indiesound.com/ 
http://streamsquid.com/ 
http://free-music-playlist.com/ 
https://www.humbolt.rocks/ 
https://www.orfium.com/ 
https://fanburst.com/ 
https://www.jango.com/ 
http://groovesharks.org/ 
https://audiocabin.com/ 
https://www.di.fm/ 
https://www.newsounds.org/ 
https://www.akazoo.com/ 
https://www.anghami.com/ 
http://inprodicon.com/ 
https://www.jtvdigital.com/ 
https://www.kkbox.com/ 
https://www.jiosaavn.com/ 
http://www.touchtunes.com/ 
http://feature.fm/ 
https://audiomack.com/ 
https://clyp.it/ 
https://hearthis.at/ 
https://www.datpiff.com/ 
https://www.soundclick.com/ 
https://www.damixhub.com/ 
https://mymixtapez.com/ 
https://rhythmic-rebellion.com/ 
http://mpg.dnset.com/radio/ 
http://musicmetropolis.co.uk/ 
https://www.broadjam.com/ 
https://artistrack.com/ 
https://openmicartists.com/ 
https://www.tradebit.com/ 
http://www.touchtunes.com/ 
https://www.slacker.com/ 
https://www.jiosaavn.com/ 
http://www.mndigital.com/ 
https://music.line.me/ 
https://www.kkbox.com/ 
http://inprodicon.com/ 
http://www.imusicacorp.com.br/ 
https://www.7digital.com/
https://gimmeradio.com/
https://www.ursamusic.com/
https://www.cleartracks.com/
https://www.timbredio.com/

Coin based platforms:
https://musicoin.org/ 
https://choon.co/ 
https://emanate.live/ 
https://www.emusic.com/ 
http://www.bittunes.org/ 
https://www.voise.com/ 
https://ujomusic.com/ 
https://atomcollectorrecords.com/

 

Does indie music really mean shitty music? 

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I’ve heard it often: Indie music means bad sounding music, in other words, it’s shitty!

First, indie music is often confused with music recorded in a garage by inexperienced musicians with little or no knowledge of recording and mixing, and sometimes less than adequate equipment. 

It’s also confused with a genre that would be some kind of lo-fi punk alternative.
This is why, more often than not, I would use the term “unsigned” rather than “indie” to talk about independent music, recorded by talented musicians and producers all around the globe, in every possible genres you can imagine.

Now, while it’s true that some of it can sound bad, it’s detrimental to think that all of it does, and I would argue that more and more, with the prices and quality of recording gear and digital audio workstations (DAW for short) being so affordable nowadays, and tons of resources on how to record and mix, the end result is getting better and better and more and more unsigned artists are producing quality music.

Still, there are some things that contributes to the myth:

1/ the fact that people are listening on devices that are less than adequate to get a good sound (phones, tablets and laptops speakers are not meant to be hi-fi, and even most bluetooth smart speakers are too often synonym of lo-fi, no bass, mono sound)

2/ streaming platforms and internet radios are using low rates* mp3 quality to air the music, this is because bandwidth has a cost, in terms of speed, and also in terms of prices when it comes to the power of computers able to sustain hundreds or thousands of listeners in a continuous stream. This power cost also translates directly to services costs that radios are subject to.

* streaming rate is measured in kbps, short for kilo bits per second, this is the amount of data that is used to reproduce the sound - the higher the better, up to 320 kbps which is the upper limit and almost lossless.

Now there is a reason why most streaming platforms (like SoundCloud, Spreaker, or even Spotify in their free tier) and most internet radios are streaming at 128 kbps mp3 or more. They have recognized that this is the absolute minimal limit when it comes to listenable quality. Anything under that rate is creating so much artifacts and distortion to the sound that it’s barely recognizable anymore.

Check out this example of a snippet compressed at 128 kbps and the same snippet compressed at 64 kbps. You will hear the enormous difference between the two, check out how muffled the 64 kbps mp3 sounds, how much the cymbals are drowned in a kind of swirling phase artifact, and how horrible this truly is, it’s even worse that cassettes were back in the 80s…
No matter what device you are using I bet you will be able to hear the difference!

You can go back and forth between two snippets in the player below (opens in a new tab/window):

Compression comparison

To me the 64 kbps version is hardly listenable. I wouldn't want my music to sound this bad, I bet most indie artists will agree.

Anyway, when you’ll hear a shitty sound don’t just assume the source music itself has been poorly recorded and mixed, check that the streaming rates you are served are not below the minimum of 128 kbps, I and every unsigned artists striving to produce great sounding records will thank you!

The indie radios dilemma 

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On Facebook today, I read the post of an indie radio owner asking an interesting question, and as much as I wanted to reply directly, I thought there were many aspects to this that couldn’t be summed up in a simple reply to his post.

The question was along the line of “is it fair some play by the rules while others advance by flying under the radar?“ This was referring to the fact that this particular radio was licensed (a laudable move, really, and much appreciated by the artists being played there) and was competing against others who aren’t, and thus are playing music without paying a dime of royalties. This is more common than you would think, whether it’s actual 24/7 radios or simple podcasts.

The thing is that these radios/podcasts are telling artists that they can’t afford paying any royalties, but that this is exposure anyway. That’s right. It’s the good old “exposure bucks” yet again! Now as much as I don’t like the idea of radios using that trick, I believe there are 2 distinct kind of radios that are in this case.

Case 1 / the crooks:

I’ve already written about how artists should pay very close attention to the terms and conditions, and licensing/rights grants that some radios are running under. Whenever you submit your music somewhere, you need to be aware of these terms and conditions, and if you ever read things like “You grant xxx  WORLD-WIDE, ROYALTY FREE, IRREVOCABLE, PERPETUAL license, …  to use, copy, modify, publish, edit, translate, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform …  SUBLICENSE such rights through MULTIPLE TIERS of sublicenses …  without any obligation to you, whether by way of compensation, attribution or otherwise … applies to any form, media, or technology now known or hereafter developed.” (this is taken from real terms of use from a real “platform” in case you’re wondering) then you know 2 things:
1/ these guys actually paid a lawyer to make sure they will own your music and will be able to do anything they want with it,
2/ they will profit from your music and you will not. Sometimes they ask you to click a checkbox saying you agree to these terms which are usually miles long and in fine prints, sometimes they will even send you a PDF to sign and return.
In any case, you know you don’t want to go there.

Case 2 / the little guys

Here is the little guy in his garage, who is passionate about music, and effectively doesn’t have any money to pay royalties, doesn’t have any sponsor and is doing it on his free time for the love of it. He might not have such a reach anyway, and there’s not even any terms or conditions to be found on his site, he might not even know of his obligations. Now, I know it’s not an excuse, but I consider that it’s different from case 1 and that he’s not really a big threat to you. Most likely his reach will not be that big and he will probably not bullshit you about the exposure, he just wants to play some music. In this case, I’d say why not? I mean it’s really up to you to see if you want to support this little guy or not. Because that’s what you will be doing by submitting your music to him, and maybe pointing some fans to his show. Perhaps later if this guy gets bigger, will you poke him gently and tell him that he should do the right thing...

Case 3 / the monsters

Now, as much as I hate the scammers of case 1, and how they will undoubtedly misuse your music and profit from you one way or another, it’s not even close to the biggest crooks of them all, the streaming platforms. The one that actually make billions of profit for their shareholders when artists see pennies, you know the ones… And yet, unsigned artists pay (via distribution platforms) to be featured there, and expect the famous exposure bucks that are really nothing more than a pipe dream, when these platform’s "search and discover" algorithm are bend towards the mainstream and big labels’ music.

So I believe the most immediate threat to indie radios are not the little guys, not even the scammers, although they could be perceived as such, but really these monsters who are hell bent on creating a monopoly and dictate what you should listen.

AM/FM

And BTW there’s another thing to know about internet radios competitors: did you know that in the US, terrestrial broadcasters (AM or FM stations) do not pay performers or sound recording copyright owners; they only pay the songwriters. That’s another unfair advantage that works against indie internet stations.

The MMA

Now will the Music Modernization Act that just passed as law in the US make a difference there?
Not in the slightest.
There are indications that a lot of unclaimed royalties (for songs which are not registered directly with the US Copyright Office) will go to a black box that will later be redistributed based on market share, meaning that the 3 big labels will get the lion share again. They will also have a seat on the non-profit government agency that will create the database related to the owners of the mechanical license of sound recordings, so they will have little incentive to find the authors of these unclaimed royalties, because in the end it will go in their pocket.

The NOIs

It was already the case with millions of address unknown NOIs (Notice Of Intent of usage) filed by streaming services, which are cases where these services claim they didn’t find the owner of a song they use. There is actually a search tool you can use to search this database (you'd have to register there, but it's free to use) You will see that Spotify for example can’t always find Ed Sheeran or Bruno Mars or The Beatles. Doesn’t seem to me they are looking very hard…. Do you think they will put much effort in finding Ghostly Beard??? (Turns out I have a few NOI in there!).

Show me the money!

Finally, one final fact that is troubling about the internet radios licensing. After being played on some of these radio who claim to pay royalties , I have yet to receive one cent from SoundExchange or SOCAN, and this is a year and a half after releasing my first EP which was widely played… So what’s up with that? 

My guess is that although the radios are paying the royalties, these are just going into another giant pot and redistributed based on market share again. If that’s not the case, then I should at least have seen records of what’s been played even if it did earn me portions of a cent…

So where does the money go?

Deconstructed 

Tomorrow, Saturday, October 12, at 3 pm EST, I’ll launch a new series of videos on my YouTube channel called “Deconstructed”. From then on, every Saturday there will be a new video.

The idea is to take very well known songs from very well known bands and artists of many genres and many era and listen to the multi-tracks to discover how this was recorded, what makes them sound good and also talk about a few production/songwriting tips and tricks that anyone recording could use to make their song better. So we’re really going to be deconstructing songs, track by track and listen to what’s been recorded in detail.

This should interest indie artists, producers, engineers, but also any curious music lover, as I intend to let people hear things they might not have noticed in these recordings and point out why this makes a difference, and how it worked within the context of the song.

Now, some might say that it doesn’t go well with my fight against streaming platforms… after all, YouTube is the biggest one of them, and the one who’s paying the less in royalties. But I consider YouTube as a video channel more than anything, and a great platform for learning, and this is what this series is going to be about… whether it’s a fun fact, or a detail in a song you’ve never noticed although you know the song by heart, or about some tips for recording and mixing, it’s a way to share my love of this music that has been part of my life and most likely yours too. 

Anyway, the bands and artists will get any little royalties coming from their “deconstructed” songs, because these videos will most likely be monetized on their behalf (or their label’s). Some videos might be taken down from label’s DMCA, and if so, I’ll possibly put them on a private site, with a password protection, so that people really interested will still be able to access later. We’ll see how it goes.

In any case, I hope you will like this new series, whether you’re just curious about music, or serious about learning of songwriting/production.

So don’t forget to subscribe https://www.youtube.com/c/ghostlybeard and hit that “bell” button to be notified each week when a new video comes up!