Monday, November 30, 2015

Blake Morgan and the story behind #IRespectMusic

How one e-mail from Pandora's founder Tim Westergren turned an artist into an activist. [An edited version of this story was originally published by Music Week]

By Emmanuel Legrand
Blake Morgan at the NMPA AGM

A few weeks ago, the RIAA started legal procedures against a new app, Aurous, that would connect users to free, unlicensed content. The founder of Aurous,
Andrew Sampson, took the issue on social media, asking for people to support him with the hashtag #StandWithAurous. But somehow, his initiative backfired. Sampson fell into a battle of hashtags, especially one that did not exist five years ago when Grooveshark or Kim Dotcom were launching their services. Sampson started trading licks on Twitter with the originator of the #IRespectMusic campaign, the New York-based artist and label owner Blake Morgan.

So because gun manufacturers make guns, and people shoot other people, they’re complicit in murder?” Sampson tweeted. Morgan's answer? "Hey folks at #StandWithAurous! Your leader's justifying his own actions by comparing them to murder. #IRespectMusic". Others tweeted, "Too bad I can’t #StandWithAurous because #IRespectMusic.”

In just a few months, #IRespectMusic has become the flagship slogan about the rights of artists, and has captured an audience that the music industry had never reached before through social networks. The history of #IRespectMusic started as an angry reaction to something the CEO of Pandora said and became one of the most successful organic grassroots initiatives advocating for the rights of creators.

"I try respectfully, benevolently to raise the issues," says Morgan about his actions. Speaking to Music Week in a French restaurant nearby his offices downtown New York, he is enjoying a soup, and he is fully into the conversation. He is precise, articulate and focused. And speaks a lot. 

"Musicians should be paid for their work," he says. "Music is one of the things that America makes that the world still wants. We are the ones who came with jazz, blues, country, hip hop and how come we don't pay these artists? It is not about technology but about a small group of people perverting technology for their own profit."

A spokesperson for artists
Obviously, he relishes his new status as one of the spokesperson for the music creative community, a status that took him to various trade conferences but also got him around the country to spread the gospel. Morgan is also very much aware of the traps he could fall into, not least the backlash on his own career. The world of social media can sometimes be harsh and punitive. But he makes no apologies for standing up and for saying what he says. "A few years ago, I would have been on my own, but not this time," he analyses. "There are people behind me. There are artists like Zoe Keating or David Lowery who are not afraid to speak out. And we have each others' back. You attack me or one of them and you will find us on your way."

If #IRespectMusic did not change the dynamics between creators and the public, it certainly contributed to re-address the narrative. That was pretty obvious in the exchanges between Aurous and Morgan. It was a hashtag punch against another one in a conversation that would have not existed a few years ago.

Morgan says one of his concerns is that the art of songwriting and the class of songwriters might disappear if nothing is done to address the issue of their remuneration. "Songwriting is not a guy sitting at the edge of a bed and coming up with a song, it is a profession," he says. "And it it is the profession that is partly gone. Kids may write songs but they are not going to make a living out of it. I was one of those guys. Playing touch football in central park and being a professional football player is not the same thing. Money is what's required to make a living. In what other profession are we asking that question? There is an assault on the artist and it is unnecessary and counterproductive to society."

He continues, "The creative part is not in question, people will still want to do it. But when uber-successful songwriters are not getting paid, middle class songwriters are decimated. If there is no money in a profession, are people going to want to be part of it? The same applies to the recording side too. There is this idea that artists and songwriters are not on the same page, but it does not reflect the reality. Who's gonna buy your t-shirt if nobody has heard of you?"

When put to him that, according to industry commentator Bob Letsetz, top songwriters never complain so the rest should not be whining and get on with it and try to be successful, Morgan snaps back that Lefsetz sounds like "a Mussolini gesticulating from his balcony." He goes on, "Well, he's factually wrong because Taylor Swift has stepped up about inequality of royalties. The truth is that the vast majority of people who make music are much more interested at polishing their craft than taking public stands about their situation. I have compassion and understanding for the people who haven't got involved and who make music -- the reason is that I was one of these people. I knew what was going on, a little, and that it was unfair, a little, but I was not doing anything about it."

Responding to Pandora's Tim Westergren
So what happened to him to become what he describes as "a blip on the music advocacy radar"? "It's because of this email from [Pandora founder] Tim Westergren," he quips. Two years ago, in May 2013, Westergren and Pandora supported a new legislation, the Internet Radio Fairness Act, and were trying to enlist the support of creators.

"Westergren send a mail that went to thousand of people encouraging us to sign a petition that he would bring to Congress where all these middle-class musicians would say 'Pandora is so awesome for us'," explains Morgan. "Of course, the petition would be used to lobby Congress to get behind the so-called Fairness Act. I do not know what fuelled me at that moment, but I wrote back, and it is one of these mails that got to his address. It said: 'I'd like to believe that your heart is in the right place but this will be used before Congress to lower my royalty rate by 70%. I like Pandora but this is wrong.

"I closed my laptop and went to the gym, and when I came back I sent it to one friend of mine I went to music school with. I said, 'I think you might get a kick out of this.' He said call me back, and said, 'Blake are you gonna blog this,' and I said no, I don't even have a blog. Then he asked, 'can I publish it?' I said sure, so he posted it and it just blew up. It went crazy. That was over two years ago. And before that I had never done anything like this.

"The next day, I got an answer from Westergren. 'Dear Blake, there is a lot of mis-information out there, we are not trying to lower rates at all, and in fact, he said, we are seeking a way for musicians to participate in the business.' That was the line that changed my life.

"I wrote back and said, very respectfully, thanks for the dialogue, but when you say 'seeking a way for musicians to participate in the business', you seem to be forgetting something: Music is our business. Without us, you don't have a business. The purpose of the so-called Internet Fairness Radio Act is to lower our royalties, it is clearly in the bill."

Then came the Huffington Post, asking to publish the exchange of emails between Morgan and Westergren. They also interviewed Morgan and published the details of his royalties statement (30,000 spins, $1,62...). "That on Huff really blew up," enthuses Morgan. "It made the first spike tiny in comparison."

The morning after the publication in the Huffington Post, Pandora lost $100m on the stock exchange market in first half hour. "Trading opens, crash," sums up Morgan. "It was such bad press for them. Every artist that steps up, emboldens others so more started to speak out, especially of the Pandora situation and it started getting a lot of press. It was such a PR disaster for Pandora that eventually they would pull back from the Fairness Act, which they spent million promoting.

"It was such a defeat for them and it got in the bloodstream," continues Morgan. "There is that understanding that big oil companies are not good, and Pandora, not good either! They were tarnished and they deserved it, which is sad because I like Pandora. Some were dubious the bill would really go away and I told them 'you know what, you've been losing for so long that you forgot what victory is'.

"Then I thought that it cannot be a one-off and now we have to fight to win the game. That was the moment when I started putting together what would become #IRespectMusic, something positive, where we talked about what is magical about music, and talk about respect."

Never have a Plan B!
Morgan penned an op-ed in December 2013 for the Huffington Post in which he described his experience at a high school where he was asked to talk about his craft. At some point he said to the kids in the class, "If you want to be an artist, do try and go all the way, and go without a plan B." And the teacher said, "No, always have a plan B." For Morgan, this would have never happened in a room with a lawyer or a doctor, but reflected the status of music in the popular psyche. A few weeks later, a student showed up at a concert with her mother and she handed Morgan her newly-pressed CD.

Morgan recalls, "She told me, 'I am going for it,' and her mother corrected her and she said 'we are going for it'. With that I ended my op-ed, saying: '“My New Year’s resolution is to stand up more, and speak more. I respect my profession. I respect artists. I respect music.' I ended it with the three words, and that piece took off. The next day, a young artist from the Philippines [Joana Marie Lor] took a line from that and put a picture of her with a written board: 'I have something worth fighting for: #IRespectMusic.' That piece went viral. Right before Christmas 2013 I put out video with a card #IRespectMusic. People started spontaneously to use it. People started tweeting and posting photos with #IRespectMusic. People in the thousands followed me.

"Then David Lowery posted #IRespectMusic. It was a sign that this was serious. He is a strong advocate. When he stood up it was an egoless gesture, just a way to say, 'We are in here together and we will have each others' backs and we show solidarity among music creators. When an artist stands up and tries to move the needle, we will have each others back.' I do not know if that was his motivation but that's how it felt to me."
Morgan then put up web site to push for the legislation introducing performance rights for terrestrial radio, the Fair Play Fair Pay Act. "I launched the page and the petition. I had so many visitors. I thought we would have 5,000 followers, we had 10,000 in 30 days. So many people came to the page that they had to wait to add their name. The petition still rolls with thousands signing up."

His relentless activism in the past few years attracted a lot of media attention and has earned him support from powerful people. One of them is David Israelite, the president and CEO of the National Music Publishers' Association David Israelite, who invited Morgan to speak at the organisation's Annual meeting in New York to talk about his initiative on June 17, 2015. “Blake’s simple but compelling message about the value of music has reached everyone from up-and-coming songwriters and artists to lawmakers on Capitol Hill," says Israelite. "I think the #IRespectMusic campaign resonates with people because Blake’s tenacity is genuine and contagious. I asked Blake to speak at our Annual Meeting earlier this year because we are all fighting to be valued appropriately in the Digital Age – artists and songwriters alike – and I think the more people that are familiar with his campaign the better."

Raising awareness
Morgan went to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators. Congresswoman Judy Chu tweeted: 'your voices are been heard, while holding the sign #IRespectMusic. He travelled the US, from Nashville to Pittburg, trying to gain support for the Fair Play Fair Pay Act and the Songwriter's Equity Act. "These two bills can change fundamentally the life of songwriters in the US. This is a benevolent SOPA reaction, no need to yell at anybody and unlike any other social media phenomenon, this has just been growing and growing," says Morgan.

He adds, "Each time I am talking to classrooms of kids, there is a bubble of signatures, but what I like is the awareness. It has become a symbol, I do not own it, a lot of people have offered me a lot of money to do things, but I have refused. That's the feeling about a grassroots movement. There are these #IRespectMusic chapters popping up everywhere and people have their own #IRespectMusic events. Two years ago I did not know anything when I just wrote back to Tim Westergren. What a journey!"

Blake Morgan: An artist-entrepreneur

Known as an activist, Blake Morgan is above all an independent artist, a music producer and an entrepreneur. He set up in 2002 his own company, Engine Company Records, which morphed in 2012 into ECR MusicGroup. He started his music career in the 1990s, after studying at the United Nations school, from 1st grade to high school (although his parents were not connected to the UN), and then graduating from the Berklee College of Music. In 1996, he signed to Phil Ramone's N2K label, distributed by Sony/Red. His first album, Anger's Candy, came out in 1997.

"I had my big record with Phil Ramone," he says. "I had my major record label deal and had the experience that a lot of artist had and fought my way out of here. Phil and I stayed friends. After that, I wondered where to go. I had to pick up myself again. I started producing records for friends. One day, walking with my mother, I said, 'If I had the guts I would set up my label, and all the demos would be masters, and the artists would own their masters.' My mother turned to me and said, 'Yeah if you had guts, you would do it'. That's what became the label ECR Music Group. With that elemental principle in mind, we made it work. All artists own their masters and own their publishing and I have roster of small labels. And I produce these records."

Morgan's last album, Diamonds In The Dark, his fourth, was released in 2013 on ECR. Recent and current albums on ECR include Janita’s Didn’t You, My Dear?, Melissa Giges Just When I Let Go and Terry Manning’s Heaven Knows. Early in 2016, ECR will be releasing the deluxe, bonus-tracks edition of Didn’t You, My Dear? and the debut album from Miles East, called Ghosts of Hope. ECR uses BDC (Burnside Distribution Company) for both physical and digital, globally.

"So far, no one has wanted to leave that eco system," he explains. "I am very proud of that and I am signed to that label too. I play five instrument, I am sound engineer, I produce. We made four records in the last year and a half. The label has been walking the walk and we've survived during what is the worst decade for music industry. As a boutique company our future is as insecure as anybody's. I am passionate and I do not want to go out of business. Our hopes are on the line, our profession is on the line. It's hard but it is a lot easier than losing the struggle, at which point we lose everything."