By Ricky O’Bannon
It’s no secret that the music publishing industry is in a state of upheaval.
In many ways, the disruption of traditional labels has allowed smaller artists new democratic avenues to find a digital audience one click or one download at a time. But as new business models become more mature, some smaller artists are finding themselves facing the problems they once did with traditional publishing, namely, how much control do you have over monetizing your music?
Zoë Keating is a cellist and composer who combines her cello with a laptop computer that she controls live on stage to layer sounds and become a “one-woman orchestra.”
Keating has recently gained attention for going public with her problems with YouTube. Keating has been a “music partner” with YouTube’s ContentID program. ContentID uses sound recognition software to match recordings of Keating and other music partners’ music to videos that unauthorized amateur users upload that make use of that music.
Technically, using those copyrighted recordings in unauthorized videos is a copyright infringement and against YouTube’s terms of service. But music partners using ContentID can decide whether they want to have YouTube remove unauthorized uses of their music or earn part of the ad revenue generated from those videos. Additionally, the software will add the artist’s name and song title that was used as a soundtrack to the unauthorized video, which presumably could lead a viewer to explore the artist’s work.
In a post to her Tumblr account, Keating — who has no label and controls distribution and rights to her music herself — said she’s been fine with the ContentID arrangement that arrangement will end unless she also agrees to the terms of a new music streaming service YouTube is rolling out called Music Key.
Keating outlines her concerns over the new terms of Music Key in full in a blog entry, but the main sticking points are that her entire catalog would have to be included in the service and any new music must be released to the YouTube service at the same time as it is released anywhere else. While she is fine with the existing ContentID system, she won’t be able to take part in that unless she also agrees to the terms of Music Key.
Keating said she understands the prominence of music streaming services but that she has chosen not to upload her full catalog to any of them, and in the end, it comes down to her right to have that choice.
“Is such control too much for an artist to ask for in 2015?” Keating writes. “It’s one thing for individuals to upload all my music for free listening (it doesn’t bother me). It’s another thing entirely for a major corporation to force me to.”
Given the massive user base of YouTube, losing access to that many potential fans would be a serious blow for an artist trying to find her audience.
For its part, YouTube has said Keating misinterpreted her discussions with them, but details are hard to come by as YouTube’s Music Key streaming service is still in development and even the details Keating wrote about would appear to violate a non-disclosure agreement she had to sign to just discuss the new program and its terms with her YouTube representative.
What is clear, however, is that while streaming is set to become the dominant method most use to listen to music, it’s still having some growing pains coming up with an arrangement agreeable to artists.
Several months ago, Taylor Swift made news when she removed her album 1989 from the libraries of Spotify and other streaming services in a move believed to have stemmed from the lack of revenue those services generated.
Speaking shortly after the move at a Library of Congress lecture titled “Music, Technology and the Entrepreneur,” Casey Rae of the Future of Music Coalition addressed what he thought it meant for a growing chorus of small artists who thought they weren’t getting their fair share from streaming.
“Taylor Swift [removing her catalog from Spotify] is a big deal if your name is Taylor Swift,” Rae said.
In essence, only big time artists who were already going to sell a lot of albums had the power to turn their back on streaming, but don’t expect a revolution.
For smaller artists who don’t have the backing of a label like Keating, the new
business model is starting to look a lot like the old one: Either agree with the terms of the contract, or face an uphill battle reaching your audience.