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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Music Publishing Sham, by Steve Provizer

On the more-or-less 143rd anniversary of the invention of the phonograph, the right to physically publish sheet music has become largely irrelevant-especially for jazz musicians. Yet "publishing" continues to exist as an anachronistic impediment to the recording careers of musicians.

The imposition of publishing into the process of making a recording is a vestige of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the sale of sheet music was the preeminent means of making money via music in the US. Millions of people had pianos and every entertainment venue had a piano player. Literally billions of sheets of music were sold. 

This was big money and all musicians but the most powerful ceded ownership of a song's publishing rights-essentially the copyright-to record companies. Victor, Okeh, Columbia et al held all the cards-or convinced musicians they did. 

Through the 20's-30's record companies closed down the cultural sieve by trying to make performers-especially "race" and "hillbilly" performers-record material they already held the rights to.        

Eventually, in mid- 20th century, the balance began to shift. Now, it's supposed to be a better deal, because songwriters are getting 75% of the royalties due, but the whole thing continues to stink.

The fact is, as soon as the songwriter either records or writes down the music on paper, that in itself constitutes a legal copyright. That should be it-end of story about rights.  Demand for reproduction can be handled by the musician. Or, if it a tune actually hits (see the 5% statistic below), the licensing process can be subcontracted out. And yet, the entire structure of "publishing" continues to be artificially supported by the musician. It fills ancient coffers and flummoxes musicians-another impediment to financial independence.

Then, there's the distribution of royalties by the licensing organizations. This is essentially an impenetrable morass, as even music lawyers admit. but any way you slice it, it dis-proportionally rewards those at the top of food chain. In any case, only 5% of artists ever see a royalty check.

Of course, there are good guys in this industry and yes, I know, I know-musicians have to be entrepreneurs-we've talked at B.C. about jazz musicians getting their act together. But why has the deck been stacked for so long against the-god help us-content providers?

The unexamined life, they say, is not worth living. Maybe the life, the entire creaky gestalt of the music publishing industry, needs a closer examination.

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