Thursday, February 23, 2012

Have the Brits lost the art of making great songs?

By Emmanuel Legrand

That’s what I asked myself after attending the 2012 BRIT Awards on Feb. 21 at the O2 in London. I could not remember one song that was played there, except for Adele’s (but more about her later).

Coldplay’s opener (‘Charlie Brown’) was blander than their average songs (and it takes some!). It was totally unremarkable, despite the fireworks.

Ed Sheeran’s acoustic song (‘Lego House’) was a winner with the public (and you need some balls to go strip naked in front of 20,000 people), but it was hardly ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’. 

And Florence? As Andy Gill quite rightly said in The Independent, she came with her big Machine but forgot to bring a song with her.

And what was that track from Noel Gallagher? It sounded like a pre-Creation demo. Is that the best he can do? (He also looked like he’d been happier working on an assembly line than on the Brits’ stage…)

No need to even mention two alumni from the School of Simon Cowell, Olly Murs (who performed some indigent song) and One Direction (who, luckily, did not perform, but did get a lot of exposure).

That said, the international acts present at the O2 (fantastic venue by the way) did not raise the bar either. All I remember from Rihanna’s ‘We Found Love’ extravaganza was the Eurodance beats and the pumped up synth chorus, but was it a song? (BTW, it was composed by a Brit, Calvin Harris)

And Bruno Mars charmingly sang a sub-Marvin Gaye track (‘Just The Way You Are’) – and all we could talk about afterwards was his nice smile and his hairdo.

It took Blur to come on stage to show that you could have great songs with substance and some kind of rock’n roll attitude too. But these songs were about 15 to 20 years old!!! It was also a reminder that the combination singer/guitarist has produced some of the most amazing songwriting partnerships in the UK (think Jagger/Richards, Plant/Page, Morrissey/Marr, Anderson/Butler, Albarn/Coxon, to name but a few).

Which brings us back to Adele. I make no bones that I do not like her music. It leaves me cold, and that’s been the case since her debut ‘19’. But I can see why it works: she has a good voice, she is true to herself, and she has…SONGS! You know, these little gems that contain an intro, a verse, a chorus, a verse, a bridge, etc. Her music is not over-produced so you can really hear the songs behind the instrumentation. And her songs stick to mind. Eureka!

One can argue that the BRIT Awards are just a snapshot of the year that went by, but they are also a reflection of what “worked” in the commercial environment (the BRITs experienced their best TV audience since 2005, so something must have been working for the viewers).

Maybe it was a weak year, maybe it was a sign of the times where a good hook and production values are more important that the overall structure of a song. Maybe good songs do not matter as much as they used to. Maybe it’s just me being nostalgic.

Nothing beats a good song. And I could not find one to bring home with me the other night.

PS: in his 20-point plan to revamp the BRITs, Independent's Andy Gill suggests to bring Ricky Gervais to host the show. I second that motion! If Gervais is good enough for the up-their-own-arses crowd of actors and film directors, he should be good too for the music biz crowd. And he'd be funny.

[Typed while listening to Arctic Monkeys’ ‘Suck It And See’ (Domino) and Laura Marling’s ‘Night After Night’ (Virgin), two of the grand absentees of the other night.]

Friday, February 10, 2012

Canada’s rights societies start 'integration' talks

By Emmanuel Legrand

Canada’s three authors' rights societies -- CMRRA, SOCAN, and SODRAC – have announced on Feb. 9 plans to explore greater integration of their operations, a move that could eventually lead to the creation of one single authors’ society dealing with music repertoire for the country.

We are not there yet, as the diplomatic terms used for the occasion only mention that the three societies are at the stage of “exploring opportunities” in order to create more efficiency for their members (authors, composers and publishers). It is understood that the three societies will commission a feasibility study to determine in which ways their operations could be combined, with which benefits to their members, and at what cost.

According to a Canadian publisher, who is aware of the discussions that have been going on for a few months, the idea underneath the move is to cut costs at a time when mechanical and performing rights are under severe pressure, but also to make it easier to license content for digital usage. 

If implemented, the plan could lead to the replication of structures that already exist in many countries, especially in Europe, where mechanical and performing societies are integrated (MCPS with PRS for Music in the UK, or SDRM with SACEM in France). "We're not there yet," says a source close to the deal. "We are a long way before making a decision on what to do." The source adds that the objective is to make savings, reduce overhead and "do a better job for our members".

A publisher tells me that  that one of the options discussed would see data centralised within SOCAN on behalf of all three societies and with SOCAN charging admin costs to CMRRA and SODRAC. "At this stage, all options are explored," says the publisher.

The discussions will involve three societies that are facing different challenges. SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, is the biggest of the three societies, with revenues in excess of CA$275 million in 2010. SOCAN’s new CEO, Frenchman Eric Baptiste [disclosure: I worked with Baptiste when he was director general of Paris-based CISAC], has been looking at ways to increase efficiencies and create a society totally in synch with the requirements of the digital age.

CMRRA, the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency, collects mechanical rights on behalf of publishers and has seen its revenues eroded by the drop in physical sales, even if digital revenues have picked up in the past two years, mostly thanks to Apple's iTunes Music Store doing better than anticipated. CMRRA president, David Basskin, is very much focused on services to clients and could finds cost and service benefits for his members through a closer partnership with sister societies.

Meanwhile, SODRAC – the Society for Reproduction Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers in Canada – is in charge of licensing and collecting the reproduction rights not only for music repertoire but also for visual arts. SODRAC’s general manager Alain Lauzon has been facing declining revenues and difficult market conditions in Quebec. The integration of SODRAC could be complicated by the fact that it represents not only music repertoire but also visual artists.

CMRRA and SODRAC are private and do not publish their yearly figures. In 2002, CMRRA and SODRAC created a joint venture, CSI, to offer digital services a one-stop-shop for mechanical licenses covering most of the world's repertoire.

The Canadian situation will most certainly be scrutinised South of the border, where there are three performing societies (BMI, ASCAP and SESAC) and one mechanical society (Harry Fox Agency, owned and managed by music publishers). The drop in mechanical income in the US could lead HFA to look for similar partnerships with sister organisations.

[The press release can be found here]

[Typed while listening to 'Creep On Creepin' On' by Timber Timbre who, quite appropriately, are Canadian, and definitely worth checking out.]

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Creators Conference (part 3) – Between authors and Europe it’s ‘Je t’aime moi non plus’

By Emmanuel Legrand

Europe’s policies in the copyright and creative sectors were also top of the agenda of the Creators Conference in Brussels on February 3. 

Several high ranked policy-makers and Members of the European Parliament were among the speakers or in attendance, and the songs they heard from authors and composers were not always lullabies…

Barbara Glowacka from the European Commission’s DG Competition kept her composure and smile under attack from a couple of authors. Austrian singer/songwriter Andy Baum had some strong words about the EC’s Competition directorate’s decision to introduce territorial competition between authors’ societies. “Authors are the collecting societies; and putting societies in competition is the most dangerous and rubbish thing Europe has done,” said Baum. “Putting authors and [rights] societies in competitor is about who is the one who yells the louder. This is rubbish.” His English syntax might be poor but Baum’s views were clear and greeted with applauses from the audience.

Barbara Glowacka
Diplomatically, Glowacka said that the EC “recognises the role societies do” and that its action should not be seen as a “negative approach”. “We look at markets and see what is happening. We do it for right holders and make sure you are protected.” But on pan-European licensing, she made it clear that the Competition priority was “that consumers have access to content across the EU”.

Hearing Glowacka going on about “access to consumers”, this old scourge of the DG Competition (also shared with Neelie Kroes, the Commissioner in charge of the digital agenda) made me wonder if it has ever it occurred to the Commission that one of the reasons why platforms do not offer, say, Polish repertoire in the UK, has more to do with the policies of digital platforms than licensing issues? Or that the reason iTunes is not in Latvia has more to do with Apple’s business priorities than a conscious decision from rights owners not to license content?

Creators in the room found a champion in German Member of the European Parliament Helga Truepel who said that she was highly critical of the policies and views of Charly McCreevy, the former European Commissioner for Internal Market, who had no sympathy for rights societies. ‘[Author’s] societies are crucial in the digital environment to enforce the rights of creators,” said Trupel. “Net activist have very bad notions about collecting societies, we need them and we need to make it known.”

On the issue of collecting societies, much was expected from Maria Martin-Prat, the head of unit “Copyright”, intellectual property directorate of the European Commission’s DG Internal Market and Services. Under Commissioner Michel Barnier, her unit is preparing a text on governance and transparency and on pan-European licensing (see my recent post on this topic).

Maria Martin-Prat
But she did not get into the details of the new Directive that her unit is currently drafting. Instead, she went into some philosophical review of what constitutes authors’ rights or copyright. For Martin-Prat copyright is at a crossroads both at a EU level and at a national level. “The way we understand copyright as a right to exercise an individual choice about how creation is used and how to make a living is changing,” she explained.

One of the main criticisms about copyright in Europe, she noted, is that it operates within territorial boundaries. In theory, this is detrimental to the internal market, but the problem can be addressed by facilitating the circulation of rights through a licensing process and the aggregation of repertoire.

In the digital world, works circulate in a different way, and the problem of remuneration has become more acute. “Who is going to benefit the most from the content you create?” she asked the audience. Hence the need for a framework to make sure that all stakeholders operate within certain rules and find a balance between different policy objectives.

And of course it was also question of the proposed merger between the recording division of EMI with Universal and EMI’s publishing division with Sony/ATV. Helen Smith, executive chair of Impala, the European association of independent labels, said the issue was as much one of market dominance as it was one of diversity – cultural, linguistic and economic.

Swedish songwriter and journalist Helienne Lindvall called the merger “a bad thing”. “For one company to have more than 50% market share is not good for anybody,” she elaborated.

On the EMI merger with Universal, Glowacka said she could not comment beyond saying, “We will do our job and take everybody’s views into account before a decision is made.”

The Creators Conference (part 2) -- Building a sustainable economy for African musicians

By Emmanuel Legrand

In Western countries, we tend to take for granted the status of creators and musicians, and the infrastructures that allow them to exercise their trade (recording studios, rehearsal halls, venues, etc).

Paul Brickhill, who runs the Harare Book Café in Zimbabwe, provided a refreshing view from a country and a continent that lacks everything, except talent, youth and enthusiasm.

In his keynote speech at ECSA’s Creators Conference in Brussels on February 3, Brickhill spoke from the heart about Africa’s love of music, and the difficulties that musicians and authors face in the continent to earn a living from music.

“Music IS the universal language, it is our means to talk to each others,” said Brickhill, who quoted the late Nigerian sax player and band leader Fela who said that “music is the weapon of the people” to explain the power of music in Africa.

Brickhill said that there was a wealth of talent in Africa in all music genres, but “infrastructure is inexistent” and States have a very lax view about the notion of copyright and compensation for creators. “Building the infrastructure is the priority [in Africa] because you need the fundamentals before you develop,” he added. “Besides, the attitude of States is patronising and meaningless to creators on the ground. As a result, much in the sector is done from the bottom up.”

Paul Brickhill
He added, “There is no association to defend their rights. A dream of ours, a goal actually, is to create an organisation that represents our songwriters and composers and recognise their contribution to society and to the economy.”

And since “poverty is the biggest problem facing the music industry as a whole in Africa” many artists are faced with no other choice than leaving their countries to try to live of their art. As a result, “a large part of the value added to music in Africa takes place in Europe or the US” where African artists can find proper infrastructures to record and play.

“We export musicians and we import CDs,” said Brickhill. “It is the wrong way to do it. It is in no way how Africa can sustain its economy.”

Also heard at the Creators Conference:
British film score composer and music producer John Groves introduced a debate about coercion in music, a system that has been developing in recent times, which sees film studios, broadcasters, or ad agencies, asking composer for a cut of their royalties for the privilege of getting work.

John Groves
“Composer often have to give up a rather significant part of their income to get their job,” he explained. “You also give away your freedom and you have a very splited catalogue. We are not just given up our money, but we are given a job tied to the acceptance of the previous. The mentality of these individuals is that it becomes the accepted way. Why is this happening? Is this a fall in moral values?”

Groves added that unlike performing artists, composers often only have one way of earning a revenue, and that was through works that they were composing. “Live is the new buzz apparently, you can go out, play in the streets, but what do I do as a film score composer…take my studio out in the streets?,” he joked. “I tried to sell t-shirts but it did not work either.”

The Creators Conference (part 1) -- Authors try to reclaim a lost narrative

By Emmanuel Legrand

What can you expect when you pack a room with authors? Well, very soon they start talking about “narrative”. It must come with the job.

The only problem, this time, is that they have “lost the narrative”. Which one? The one related to their rights in the digital world.

Victor Hugo may have written in the 19th Century that authors’ rights were the engine of free speech, the message apparently has been lost in translation when it got to the new generation of internet users. They believe – rightly or wrongly – that copyright is a hindrance to free speech. They assume that copyright is the preserve of the rich and the conservative “old economy”. They build a case by linking any legislation to protect rights owners or even any willingness to regulate the internet as an attack on their basic freedom of speech.

Such vision hurts authors, because they view copyright, or authors’ rights (to use the Continental European term), as not only recognition of their art but also as their means of living. It hurts them financially, of course, since the value of creative works is reduced to zero, preventing them from what they believe are well-deserved earnings. But it also hurts them to be seen as among the bad guys from the creative industries that are vilified by the digital crowd. Such attitude is underserved, they believe, since they are at the bottom end of the food chain and the vast majority have problems making both ends meet.

So what happened? Where did it do wrong and how can the tide be reversed? Or can it? These questions were top of the agenda at the Creators Conference, held on February 3 at the splendid Théâtre du Vaudeville in Brussels. Organisers ECSA, the European Composer and Songwriter Alliance, got together authors, composers, lobbying groups, policy-makers and media in an attempt to “give a voice to creators”, according to Swedish composer Alfons Karabuda, chairman of ECSA.

American writer Robert Levine, author of the book ‘Free Ride’ (Doubleday), summed up the perception of the creative industries by the internet crowd as “backward greedy company trying to hold back change from the people, and the people cannot be wrong”.

Levine reminded the audience that the first author’s society in the US, Ascap, was created in 1919 by a bunch of musicians who asked to be paid for music that was used in public, and they were told that they should be happy because that was promotion for them and that businesses would close if they had to pay for music. “Very little has changed,” noted Levine. “Artists were called greedy, and were told they were against technology.”

Robert Levine
In the digital era, he added, what we are witnessing is a war between the creative industries and internet companies. He joked that the friction between the two was “the first class war between billionaires and millionaires”, between “one group of financial interest vs. another group of financial interests.” And in between are the creators, a class of their own.

But on a grassroots level, he added, the divide was now between creative companies vs. people’s rights. Nothing better exemplified this divide than the recent battle in the US against the SOPA and PIPA proposed legislation. “SOPA turned into a battle for the right to free internet,” said Levine. “It was not a good law but even more flooded than the law was the conversation [about the law]. There are right on both sides. We don’t want to infringe on right to free speech. And everyone should have the right to publish a book but I don’t think everyone should have the right to publish my book.”

Levine’s keynote speech triggered a very healthy discussion among creators and policy-makers about the situation of creators vs. internet giants during the panel ‘Freedom of Choice’ in which moderator Patrick Rackow, chief executive of the British Academy of Composers, Songwriters and Authors asked if freedom of choice was something authors still had and if the concept of moral right was outdated.

Rick Carnes, chair of the Songwriters Guild of America, picked up on Levine’s point about rights. “If they use my songs without authorisation on the internet, I have a right [to ask internet services to take down the song] but no remedy [if they don’t], and a right without a remedy is not a right,” he said.

“We lost the narrative,” he quipped. Carnes urged his fellow creators to fight back and not being afraid to take a stand. He invited creators to use the term author’s rights to define their rights rather than copyright. And for Carnes, creators should be able to move hearts and minds because that’s what they do (“We are great story-tellers”), but somehow they have not been able to convey their message – and the validity of their message – to the general public. “We have our own platforms: films and music. I do not understand how we cannot get our message out,” he said.

But he added that even if they had the narrative right, it was not obvious to reach out to the public since the platforms were controlled by the internet giants such as Google, which he described as “an entity that has become too large”. Besides, added Swedish songwriter and journalist Helienne Lindvall, Google has that view that US law applies everywhere.

Levine jumped in to point out the interesting paradox that tech companies talk about content monopolies, when all the studios or labels taken together have less of a market share than Google has in its own business.

Helga Truepel
Two European policy-makers added their pinch of salt to the conversation. German Member of the European Parliament Helga Truepel noted that there has been a shift “from old monopolies to new monopolies and they are all American”.  She added that it was necessary to counter pirates “that have the narrative of freedom on their side”, and who see any attempt to regulate the internet as censorship.

For Truepel, the narrative has “to make clear to people that if they want to consume cultural content, they have to pay for it. We need to find ways to remunerate in a sustainable way creativity, otherwise it’s a question of exploitation of the rights of creators.”

She added, “I do not like the argument that access to culture has to be free. It cannot be a sustainable solution.”

“Artists have to speak out,” Trupel told a room of creators who were acquiescing with her views. A theme backed by Jean Bergevin, head of the European Commission’s unit 'Fight against Counterfeiting and Piracy' at the DG Internal Market and Services: “You guys are unheard: you have to go out. You have a very valid story to tell.”