Apr 5, 2014, 15:32

Most music fans in 2014 can’t imagine a fight breaking out between the notes written on a musical score and the digital recording of a vocalist singing those notes. That’s a stupid distinction – and it would be weird fight to watch. To most listeners, it’s just…the melody. Without Frank Sinatra, the intro to “New York, New York” is just black dots on a page. And without those black dots the best use of Frank’s time at that 1979 recording session would have been to just lay down and sleep off the bourbon.

But for decades that exact line has existed between the RIAA, representing the artists who sing your favorite hits, and ASCAP, representing the composers and lyricists who write those hits. And it’s been working. RIAA makes money whenever the songs are digitally downloaded while ASCAP earns money whenever the songs are played on TV or radio.

However, with the advent of internet streaming, Napster and the fact that no one buys whole records anymore, both organizations have recently been picking fights in the courts and in Congress; and sometimes with each other. In this blog series I’ll explain these scuffles through the perspective of the artists who play guitar much better than the government appointees who shall soon be making big decisions about song royalties.

Before I go further, let’s define some terms for this series:

“Publishers” shall mean composers and lyricists who spend time at pianos, coffee shops, jam sessions and wine cellars racking their brains for the perfect melody, heartbreaking lyric and perfect chord structure. They do not look great on camera. Their voices are just ok. They’re grouchy and prefer to stay behind the scenes. Those composers/lyricists are represented by business people. Those business people are called publishers. Publishers are represented in Congress by ASCAP.

“Labels” shall mean vocalists and producers who don’t have time to focus on the minutiae of melody structure and lyrical perspective. Instead they spend their time choosing the best songs for that artist to sing. They focus on getting a great performance out of the singer. Perhaps most importantly, they cover the recording and marketing costs required to get the best possible representation of that song out into the public at large. Record labels, to whom those singers/producers are contractually obligated, own anything those artists/producers record. Labels are represented in Congress by the RIAA.

Is this is a gross over-simplification? Yes. Do record labels sometimes also act as the publisher? Yes. Do publishers sometimes act as the record label? Yes. Do artists who see no distinction between the writing process and the recording process (i.e. Prince) think this system is ridiculous? Surely.
But for now, think of “publishers” as the people who write the dialog for the movie. And think of “labels” as the actors and directors who film the story. One cannot live without the other.

Now that that’s been established, let the war stories begin. In the next installment of this series I’ll explain how a 1941 government ruling forced publishers to give Pandora a bargain it didn’t want to give. Stay tuned.


Mike Bielenberg is a professional musician and co-founder of http://www.musicrevolution.com, a production music marketplace with over 28,000 tracks online where media producers, video producers, filmmakers, game developers, businesses and other music buyers can license high-quality, affordable royalty-free music from an online community of musicians mbielenberg@musicrevolution.com.

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