Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Five takeaways from ASCAP 'I Create Music' Expo

By Emmanuel Legrand

US rights society ASCAP held its annual ASCAP 'I Create Music' Expo April 13-15 in Los Angeles, where some 3,000 established and aspiring songwriters focused on the art of songwriting, and were asked to make their voices heard. And a genius named Stevie Wonder thrilled with a two-hour masterclass. Here are a few highlights from the Expo.

1 - Getting involved is now part of the business of songwriters
 
ASCAP's Paul Williams
ASCAP 'I Create Music' Expo always had an advocacy component but this year, more than in previous years, participants were asked to bring their voices to the discussion about the future of rights societies in the American context. An energetic ASCAP Chairman and President Paul Williams reminded attendants in his "State of the Nation" speech that "what we do for a living is a holy mission," but that songwriters "deserved to make a living" from their craft. His message was addressed at digital services as well as policy-makers. "Pandora, Spotify, and all who play our music, we love that you play our music, but just give us fair payment for that," he said (in a separate session, songwriter Priscilla Renea, whose songs have been performed by Mary J. Blige and Miranda Lambert, said that for one million streams, the songwriter's royalty is about $170). And to policy-makers, he asked to put an end to a system that is "over-regulated and that under-values music," claiming that US songwriters were "the heaviest regulated small businesses in the world." He appealed to "our friends on both sides of the aisles" in Washington to reform the system, especially the consent decrees that have been ruling ASCAP and competitor BMI for 76 years. "We need a system close to a free market with a free buyer and a free seller," said Williams, adding to the benefit of the audience: "How can you make a difference? Advocacy!" He asked them to reach out to policy-makers to urge them to support the reform of copyright legislation. "This is a fight for the livelihoods of the future generations," he concluded.
 
2 - Build momentum!
 
The session 'Music Licensing Reform: The Fight for Your Rights' at ASCAP 'I Create Music' EXPO (l-to-r): ASCAP Chairman/President Paul Williams, Congressman Doug Collins, Congresswoman Karen Bass, songwriter Priscilla Renea, and ASCAP General Counsel Clara Kim.
The doxa "you must do your part" was embraced too, in a bipartisan manner, by two members of US Congress who attended ASCAP Expo -- Doug Collins (R-G) and Karen Bass (D-CA) during the session "Music Licensing Reform: The Fight for Your Rights". The Representatives from Georgia and California agreed that they tend to disagree on a lot of policies, but they find common ground on music-related issues. "This is an issue that is a bi-partisan issue but when we work in a by-partisan way it does not get any coverage," said Bass. Her message to the audience was simple: "Call your Representative, we do pay attention." She added, "Congress can be slow but can also can move overnight, if there is momentum. So you have to create a momentum by bringing it to our attention." Collins, who was labelled "a friend" by Williams, concurred: "Get to know your elected officials. We pay attention." Collins reminded the audience that "there are competing voices so the issue is how you make your voices hear." On the issues at stake -- modernising the consent decrees, reforming music licensing -- Collins commented: "These are reasonable requests from songwriters. It is not only do-able but also fair." 
 
3 - ASCAP is in good shape and preparing for the future
 
ASCAP CEO Beth Matthews was as buoyant as Williams in her address, with the clear message that ASCAP has made -- and is continuing to make -- structural changes to adapt one of the world's largest PRO to the realities of the digital era. ASCAP collected a record $1.059 billion in 2016, up 5% year on year, with $918m going back to songwriters and publishers (for every dollar in, 88 cents go back to rights holders). Meanwhile, the number of registered performances has been doubling year after year, from 250bn in 2013, to 500bn in 2015, and 1 trillion in 2016. Matthews said ASCAP will continue to build partnerships to access modern tools such as data through a deal with Nielsen, and will experiment blockchain technology with the UK's PRS for Music and France's SACEM. "We have to innovate and experiment," she said, "and we have to push the industry towards greater accountability and transparency." Matthews also offered a method for the music industry to deal with, and secure, changes in Washington. "Our recommendation is to increase the value of music and grow the whole pie," she said. "We get distracted [with cross-industry bickering] and we confuse the guys in Washington. We should agree on increasing the value of music and figure out how to divide the money after." 
 
4 - Give credit where it's due 
 
A new front has opened with songwriters getting increasingly frustrated at the lack of information offered by streaming services about songs in general, and songwriters/producers' credits in particular. “Little by little our names are being erased from existence," said Desmond Child, whose credits include 'Living on a Prayer' for Bon Jovi and 'Livin' la Vida Loca' for Ricky Martin. "When you buy a Twinkie are you going to read the credits? No. But they have to be there by law. So why is our music not as important as a Twinkie?,” asked Child. Fellow songwriter Aloe Blacc stepped in to lament the lack of response from digital services on this issue. “I’ve sent messages to Spotify and Apple and there’s been no real response," said Blacc. "We -- as songwriters, performers, engineers and mixers -- deserve our credits into the system." Child presented some empirical research outlining how the various streaming services were listing song's credits, from those who do provide some sort of credits (Apple Music, Shazam, Tidal, iTunes and Amazon Music) to those (YouTube, Pandora, Vevo, Spotify) that feature "no credit at all." Which led to an interesting conversation with a representative from Pandora, Adam Parness, who explained that credits were there on the platforms' new services. Accepting the explanation, Child said he would remove Pandora from the list of "bad guys." 
 
5 - Signed, Sealed, Delivered!

Paul Williams, Stevie Wonder and Janelle Monae
Stevie Wonder was in the house. And he mesmerised his audience with tales about songs in the key of life, which, quite appropriately, was the name of the Award he received from the hands of ASCAP President Paul Williams and Janelle Monae, who conducted the interview. The Key of Life Award will be bestowed annually upon songwriters who, like Stevie Wonder, "inspires and elevates the world through his songs, his spirit and his boundless heart’," in the words of Williams. This generosity was felt throughout the two hours Stevie Wonder spend at the Dolby Ballroom on Hollywood Boulevard.

Wonder turned the pages of a life dedicated to music and songwriting, from his arrival at Motown at 11 ("
I was just taking it all in"), playing the harmonica ("I wanted to play it as a small saxophone"), and meeting deadlines (“I wish I could do that. Everyone at Motown wished I could have done that. I try to do that but I don’t lock my self into It. If it’s doesn’t feel right, it’s just not done.”

Politics and today's climate were not omitted. He talked about how "heartbroken" he was at today's situation, lamenting "
all the negativity, the people that felt they wanted to make America great again when America already is great.” He added, "Citizens have to be accountable, artists have to be accountable, leaders have to be accountable as well. Stop saying, ‘Can you believe what he said?’ ‘Can you believe what she said?’ Believe it! And say it’s unacceptable.”

But the best part was, of course, the music. He regaled the audience with a harmonica solo and played 'Tears of a Clown' (for which he wrote the melody from lyrics penned by Smokey Robinson), 'Superstition' (the top line came while he was drumming), 'Girl Blue' (from Music of My Mind, which he rarely plays) and 'Golden Lady', among others. He also came with a surprise gift: the rendition of 'Where’s Our Love Song', a new track for which he had the melody since 1971. He concluded by offering young songwriters, selected by ASCAP, to work with him on four songs, an invitation he also extended to Janelle Monae (who did a good job as an interviewer) and Paul Williams