In this interview, respected music industry journalist Larry LeBlanc sits down with Justin Kalifowitz, CEO of Downtown Music Publishing to discuss topics ranging from the complexities of copyright law and music publishing, dealing with artist catalogs and the state of the music industry.
Guest post by Larry LeBlanc from Celebrity Access
Headquartered in New York City, and with offices in Nashville, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam, and Tokyo, Downtown Music Publishing is a global rights management giant.
Founded in 2007, the company represents a diverse cross-section of creators including John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen, Yoko Ono, Santigold, Hans Zimmer, Ray Davies, Roseanne Cash, Anthrax, Social Distortion, One Direction, Benny Blanco, Sturgill Simpson, Femi Kuti, Jewel, Carla Bruni and other notables; and represents the publishing catalogs of Cy Coleman’s Notable, Brushfire Records, and Budde Music among others.
In the past year Downtown acquired Nikki Sixx’s Mötley Crüe catalog, and the works of lyricist Wayne Kirkpatrick; partnered with Benny Blanco, and entered into administration agreements with Nashville-based music publishing and artist development company Big Yellow Dog, and with legendary Italian publishing company Edizioni Curci.
Downtown also recently acquired more than 170 compositions by four-time Grammy winner Ryan Tedder. OneRepublic’s Tedder sold the catalog in a wide-ranging deal in which Downtown will administer his newly-written songs.
Among the list of recent high-profile samples from Downtown’s vast catalog, are Beyoncé using Stephen Bishop’s “On and On” on her self-titled album; and DJ Khaled sampling Edizioni Curci’s “Io Che Non Vivo (Senza Te)” on last year’s “Major Key.” Jidenna’s current album, “The Chief,” features two separate Downtown samples: Far East Movement’s “Turn Up The Love” and Jack Keller’s “Fantastico.”
A pair Downtown Music Publishing songs are sampled on Drake’s recent “More Life” playlist: “Building a Ladder” by Hiatus Kaiyote is sampled on opening track “Free Smoke” and “6 8” by Gabriel Garzón-Montano is sampled on the Kanye West-featuring “Glow” via a sample Drake previously used in in “Jungle.”
Downtown Music Publishing is slated to soon launch Songtrust for Business, making its popular Songtrust service more widely available to publishers and others. Launched in 2011 as a way for songwriters to seamlessly administer their publishing in a cost-effective way, Downtown’s platform now powers global royalty collection from over 100 countries, and more than 20,000 unique income sources worldwide.
Downtown Music Publishing operates Downtown Music Studios, a recording facility in Soho.
Prior to launching Downtown Publishing in 2007, Kalifowitz served as head of A&R at Spirit Music Group where he worked with the song catalogs of such iconic artist songwriters as Bob Marley, Lou Reed, and Chaka Khan.
He is a co-founder of New York Is Music, a coalition dedicated to developing the music industry in New York.
For decades songs had been separated from recorded works. As during the 1930s and1940s, the song itself has become primary again.
When I first got started in publishing at Spirit Music in 2001, I met what could only be described as an old timer in the music publishing industry who said, “This is a really bad time. You missed the golden age; the age where songs lived lives of their own; and were more important than the recording. People knew the songwriters of the great American Songbook on a stand-alone basis and, with rare exceptions, the writers themselves were often more known than the artists. You just missed all that.”
The deals first made in the digital space were with the major labels, and then with the indie labels. The attitude of digital services toward music publishers was, “What? We have to pay for the songs now too?”
Yes. It‘s been amazing to me over the past 15 or 16 years in publishing of how during the first half when we were talking to the digital companies that many of them employed people who either feigned ignorance about needing to get a license or just completely ignored the idea of having to get a license, and really didn’t want to have the conversation. We have certainly seen that change. The NMPA (National Music Publishers’ Assn.) has been at the forefront pushing that dialogue…
Much of the credit for the change in attitude in the digital space goes to National Music Publishers’ president/CEO David Israelite.
Yes, David is amazing. He has an incredible team with him which has really been pushing the envelope with all of the digital services.
At the same time, it should be pointed out the music publishers themselves were not a united group. Record companies were more united. The music publishers, in fact, refused any move toward flexibility in negotiating the use of their copyrights.
Well, that’s exactly right. The challenges that publishers face are that songwriting is a heavily regulated art form. In fact, with rare exceptions, it is the only regulated art form in the world; where somehow the American public needs to be protected from songwriters. It is sort of a crazy concept to me. But we (music publishers and songwriters) do live in a world where we do have things like consent degrees controlling how we can license our performing rights. We have mechanical rates standards that are set by a panel.
The Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) revisits mechanical rates in the U.S. every five years.
Every five years. I am a witness in the current case going forward. It’s been an interesting experience in my career to learn just how we go into a negotiation with basically both hands tied behind our back. Interestingly, and as I have pointed out before, and as David points out all of the time, when we are able to negotiate in a free market–with an example being sync licensing–publishers always get at least 50% of the money for their music and, in many instances, the song copyright is frankly valued even higher than the master. Examples of that being when a very well-known song copyright is being used, and the master that they are using is, perhaps, a re-record or a lesser known version.
[The Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) determines royalty rates paid to songwriters and music publishers. The CRB has been hearing testimony from both music creators and music users to set new mechanical royalty rates which will be in effect from 2018 through 2022. It will make its decision in December 2017.]
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte has been passing around a draft of a bill to move the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress. The bill would make the head of the Copyright Office, the Copyright Register, a presidentially appointed position, with 10-year terms, and who could only be removed by the President. What are your thoughts about that?
(Long pause) It’s interesting.
No doubt the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) would welcome such a move because it could give them a significantly greater say over who leads the office.
I think that’s right. You are certainly seeing people looking at this decision (of how the head of the Copyright Office is decided) and what are the politics in Washington around it. How can that be used to, perhaps, create a little bit more fairness toward copyright owners? Certainly in the last administration, regardless of your politics, the technology companies certainly held a tremendous amount of sway. As least that’s how it appeared to many of us in the copyright industry. Is there now an opportunity to balance things out?
[In a letter to songwriters, David Israelite warned, “(Tech companies are) creating new ways to distribute music [and] they are also fighting in this trial to pay as little to songwriters for the songs that drive their businesses,” wrote “[A] rate structure that allows global tech companies to build their empires on the backs of songwriters, without providing those songwriters with fair compensation, is unsustainable.”]
At the same time, creators wouldn’t want to politicize the Copyright Royalty Board.
Yeah. I think that the objective is just to be fair and to look at things in a balanced way. We’ve gone away from that narrative a little bit if you look at just the sheer amount of money technology companies are spending in lobbying in Washington relative to the content industries, it is really out of whack.
Spotify reportedly now has 50 million paying subscribers, and at least 50 million listeners using the “freemium” tier. The company continues to defend its two-tier “freemium” approach — free streaming with ads and paid subscriptions with no ads — despite repeated criticism over the much lower royalty rates paid for those ad-supported streams. Are we after a few recent announcements of content changes, perhaps, moving toward the end of free music on the internet?
Certainly when we have done our own analysis, and I believe there are other things that you have seen out there in the public about “freemium” users, what we are receiving in compensation, and what we are sharing with our songwriting partners as compensation from the free service pales in comparison to what the paid users are providing. I think that at the beginning that there was an argument made, and many of the digital services made a very compelling argument about the need for a free service to push people onto a paid service. That is very much something that we all bought into as an industry I think. But we are at a point now paying for music isn’t such a distant concept. Whether or not it’s Spotify or Amazon or Pandora or Google, and obviously, in a lot of other markets around the world that have their own localized streaming services like Saavn in India, you are seeing paying for music services becoming more and more the norm.
Spotify recently agreed to withhold certain albums from its free tier. For a two-week window following their release dates, certain albums will only be available to paying subscribers. The deal was struck after a long negotiation with Universal Music Group. Merlin has now confirmed that it has inked a new, multi-year license agreement with Spotify and, like with Universal, its members have won the right to “window” album releases on Spotify Premium. In the U.S., music publishers don’t have the right to withhold songs due to compulsory licensing.
That’s exactly right. It’s incredibly frustrating in a lot of instances to see songwriters not having the choice of being able to withhold tracks on the “freemium” services Why an individual recording of a song copyright has more rights than the song copyright, that has always been something that has troubled me.
With these recent licensing deals with Universal Music and Merlin, Spotify is striving for a sounder financial footing ahead of its IPO. Seeking, no doubt, to convince investors it can translate its impressive customer growth into a sustainable business. Are you curious to see how successful Spotify’s IPO will be when it comes down?
Yeah. I think it will be very helpful for music, broadly. We have seen this unbelievable wave of positive media. When I got into the music business in 2001 there was still a few more good years left in growth in the global recorded music business. Then there was this onslaught of 10, 12, 15 years of declines. What we have seen over the past 12 or 18 months is some real positive trends worldwide. And that can change peoples’ opinion. In the financial community, in particular, a business like Spotify having a successful IPO, enabling them to be able to invest more back into the ecosystem, is exciting. Hopefully, it will lead to more folks investing in music and investing in music distribution and content creation and coming back from a period where a lot of folks pulled back from this business for many years.
It will be interesting discovering what the ownership equity percentage is with the major labels in the Spotify IPO.
What’s interesting about that point of the discussion again, given that we are a regulated industry unlike the recorded music side with respect to negotiations with Spotify, is that it is difficult for publishers to have those types of discussions. When people compare the rate that we are getting relative to the rate the recorded music businesses are getting is anybody valuing the equity that they are also getting in terms of comparison?
The Department of Justice has announced that they might consider bringing in 100% licensing; where a publisher with a share in a song can license 100% of the track to digital services, rather than the services having to reach an agreement with all the individual rights holders.
Yes, which we obviously vehemently disagree with. Beyond the complexities of trying to manage that it would be undoing decades and decades of practice and endless agreements between publishers, and their songwriters, and collection societies. Not to mention being completely out of step with foreign performing rights societies. It would be a complete nightmare.
You currently do direct licensing with YouTube, Pandora, LyricFind and others?
Yes, we have direct deals in place with a handful of DSPs including with select Amazon services. In most of those instances, what we are really doing is negotiating around the fringe of the agreements. At a worse case scenario they will go back to a statutory rate, right? You are never going to be able to push the envelope on rate. They sit there saying, “We are happy to negotiate certain points.” How you can get licenses, for example. Will you do a direct performance license so we can get paid directly for all the income instead of having it flow through the societies? But you are not really negotiating on rate. You are mostly negotiating on some of those fringe pieces.
In effect, you are eliminating administration costs.
Yes. We are eliminating the administration fee. We are getting more frequent accounting in some instances. We are getting quicker accounting in some instances which is what we want because in addition to collecting the money part of it (administration), is protecting the copyright, and having a more direct line of communication between music publishers and the digital services. Ultimately what these direct deals do is that they put us a little more in control of the relationship between us and the digital services; as opposed to relying on third parties. What we have seen around the world is a trend toward, not only in the publishing community but collection societies as well, everybody looking to not only expand the suite of services they offer but to do them (collections) more efficiently and at lower costs. That’s a trend that I am excited about because, historically, collection societies take very sizeable fees for the services that they have provided in a lot of different markets around the world. With some of the direct licensing, we are engaging in, that many other publishers are engaging in, is having everybody in this system think exactly what it takes to process data, and pay out accurately which ultimately results in better payments out to our songwriters.
You have been quite engaged with the debate around the consent decrees that govern the way ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC operate.
I think that, in general, that we as a publishing industry—and I can say that I think that a lot of publishers share the opinion–that they would like a lot more flexibility. The all-in and all-out nature of licensing right now; not being able to full-stop a category, for example, like digital from a collection society, is a significant frustration.
At the same time, collection societies in the United States, and around the world play an incredible role in the (music industry) ecosystem. One of the areas that are incredibly important, and is often not discussed, is the role they are playing in general licensing. They are licensing hundreds of thousands of small businesses that pay to have music in their venue or in their hotel or bar or in their restaurant. That, to me, is one aspect that over the long term that will grow tremendously when you consider that businesses are spending a tremendous amount of resources, and mind share in figuring out their music strategies. So many businesses now are involved that used to think about music as just some background, “We will pump in Muzak or something.” They now have dedicated executives thinking about how music is being performed in their retail locations. Thinking about what music means to the consumer experience. In those scenarios, the PROs are, frankly, best positioned to create more revenue for the publishing industry at large by responding to some of the ways those businesses are using music.
How did you land Okie Ryan Tedder and his catalog of 170 songs?
I’ve been friends with Ryan’s team, (manager) Ron Laffitte and (entertainment lawyer) Jordan Keller (of Keller Turner Ruth Andrews & Ghanem), for a long time. We have been talking about opportunities to work together. We have just been admiring Ryan for a long time. Ryan has also been working out of our recording studios here in New York. It was one of those things where we were talking that, “The guy is here every time he’s in New York. It’d be great to connect with him at some point if he’s ever thinking of making some moves on publishing.” That the (Downtown) team would love to work with someone like him, and with his incredible catalog. As we dug in, we learned a lot more about him. Not only his song catalog behind as tremendous as it is, but when you spend time with Ryan, you immediately recognize the passion that he has for the business, for the art form, and the passion and the drive that he has for building up his broader businesses, particularly with what he’s doing with Patriot (Patriot Games Publishing) which has become an incredible company. In addition to the deal that we have done with Ryan to acquire his back catalog and, in addition, going forward with Ryan on his future songs, getting to partner with him on Patriot and the writers that are there.
[Raised in a rural Oklahoma, OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder started making mixtapes from all the songs played on one of Tulsa’s only Top 40 stations, KHTT 106.9 “KHITS.” At the age of 20, he entered an MTV TRL competition “The Free Lance Talent Search” in 2000 and, introduced by Justin Timberlake, he won. After an expected record deal fell through, Tedder spent two years finding himself as a songwriter and was signed by Timbaland’s Mosley Music Group. He has since produced and written songs for Madonna, Adele, Beyoncé, Hilary Duff, Natasha Bedingfield and others. Among his most popular songs are OneRepublic singles like “Apologize” and “Secrets,” plus Beyoncé’s “Halo,” Adele “Rumor Has It” Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love.”]
The songs Ryan wrote for OneRepublic are excluded in the deal?
The new songs Ryan will write for OneRepublic will be included.
The past songs he’s written for others?
Those are the songs that we acquired.
Under this deal, Downtown is committed to expanding Ryan’s Patriot Games Publishing. As a joint venture?
The administration deal is with us and Patriot, but we are providing creative and marketing services for the writers and the compositions as part of that agreement. Patriot has a great roster that includes Noel Zancanella (BMI’s 2015 Songwriter of the Year).
In the past year Downtown acquired Nikki Sixx’s Mötley Crüe catalog and the works of lyricist Wayne Kirkpatrick; partnered with Benny Blanco; and entered into administration agreements with Big Yellow Dog Music in Nashville, and the Italian publishing company Edizioni Curci. The company seems to have the flexibility to make creative deals.
Yeah. We consider ourselves full-service music publishers. When you are a full-service music publisher you do three things. You own copyrights. You manage copyrights, and you develop new copyrights. That is something that we hold very near and dear. The ability to be very flexible has always been mission critical for us and something that we have really been executing on over the past 12 months.
People sell their song catalogs or seek out administration of their catalogs for so many different reasons.
Yeah, 100%. We see people for all different reasons. Sometimes, they are overly exposed to music. Sometimes they have family events or live events. There are a variety of reasons people are interested in selling. A lot of the deals that people look to do are not only about selling out but, if they are going to retain a portion, they are looking to move the catalog to someone who is going to elevate it, and help with other parts of their career. We see a lot of instances where people are selling their catalog, whether in whole or in part, to finance other opportunities that they want to do in music which is really exciting. Having the flexibility to not only be an acquisition machine but also be a company that partners with our songwriters in their current and future endeavors, is a major driver for us. It is also something that has made the company attractive to such a diverse group of songwriters and music publishers who are looking for partners.
Do many estates come to you seeking to either sell or administer catalogs?
Over the years there have been a handful of folks that have come through the door, whether or not on an administration basis or, in some instances, we have purchased catalogs from different estates. And it’s always for a variety of different reasons. Sometimes it’s a lack of knowledge or unfamiliarity with the music space. Let’s say it was a parent who was a songwriter years ago or someone in the family that was involved with the music publishing business many tears ago and the current heirs don’t necessarily have the passion for it (music publishing) or they don’t feel like they want to be bothered, and they believe that selling the catalog is the best move for them.
Or, to put it bluntly, they want to cash out.
Yeah. Exactly. Some people do treat it (selling the catalog) exactly like that. Like any asset with the attitude, “We are going to liquidate, and we are going to move on with our lives.” Of course, there are also people who come to us who are interested and excited about the role of the songs in the world, and how they can be bettered positioned for those types of opportunities. There are a handful of examples of that as well.
What section of John Lennon’s catalog do you administer?
We have compositions that he wrote during his solo career. We administer on behalf of the estate as well for early Beatle copyrights that he co-wrote.
Is the deal with John’s widow Yoko Ono?
It’s with the estate.
After opening offices in Los Angeles in 2013, and Nashville in 2014, Downtown established Downtown Music Benelux in Amsterdam in collaboration with Hot Streak Music, a division of Cloud 9 Music; founded Downtown UK following the acquisition of the London-based music publisher Eagle-i Music; and recently launched Tokyo-based Downtown Music Japan in a partnership with Avex Music Publishing, a division of Avex Group Holdings. How important are the international affiliates to Downtown?
Tremendously important. One of the things that motivate us is that we believe that there is a real opportunity to be a global music publishing company. Apart from the 4 or 5 largest companies in the world, there aren’t really (independently-owned) music publishing companies in multiple markets. The long-term exception and model in this space is, of course, peermusic, which is a phenomenal business.
It’s amazing that Ralph Peer introduced Central American music to the world in the 1940s.
Right. When I think of emerging markets in the world, peermusic has been doing it for quite some time. We think that there is a real opportunity to operate a global business. When we look at the different territories there are a few different things that are important to us. First off, it’s local repertoire, right? So, in a market like Japan, local repertoire is incredibly important. The music publishing industry operates very differently there than it does in much of the rest of the world. The recorded music business there and the songwriters have a very close connection. Just the volume of music that is being recorded and released there is unique. The typical (Japanese) pop artist will largely take outside songs or collaborate on most of their records, and put out quite a volume of music. What that creates is an incredible opportunity for collaboration and the ability for us to step in and sign local songwriters and producers. Secondarily, it creates an opportunity for us to have our Western songwriters and producers from our existing offices in the other five cities travel to Japan for collaboration there.
Of course, Downtown has had it U.S.-based songwriters going to London or Amsterdam to collaborate with fellow Downtown songwriters there or going from Nashville to Los Angeles to co-write.
Correct. There has been a tremendous amount of cross-pollination between the offices. Of course, initially we focused on the major media markets around the world, and now we are continuing to expand that. Frankly, our overall thought process on international expansion is really that we have centralized the global royalty collections, copyright management, finance, legal and all of that stuff out of New York, so we are able now to focus our geographic expansion exclusively on business development, catalog marketing, and becoming a meaningful participant in the local scenes in each of these cities in which we are operating.
Japan is the second largest music market in the world but has been mostly ignored by Western publishers.
That’s stunning to me. The unbelievable focus on the Anglo-American repertoire in the broader global music industry is something that made sense in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. When Anglo-American repertoire performed extraordinarily well around the world. But if you look at some of these markets today, which include some of the biggest music markets, they continue to dominate in the local language. To not be there; to think that you are only going to be there to collect whatever your Anglo-American catalog will earn in the territory, and not be an active participant in the market, is not only not a good business decision, but detrimental to the overall music publishing ecosystem. One of the great things about music is that it really is an art form without borders and I think that the music publishing community has been lagging in recognizing that.
I very much subscribe to the idea that the global music industry is a fascinating place that has had far too much attention placed on the Anglo-America portion. It’s incredible when you go to outside of the English-speaking territories, and you dig in, get to meet people, and you see the extraordinary music that is available.
How did you decide that Taeko Saito and Rika Yasumoto could open up the market for Downtown Music Publishing in Japan?
Taeko came to us a few years ago. She had been doing a lot of work in Japan over the years in her career in other companies. She really had an interesting concept in which she wanted to approach the Japanese market. We spent 18 months looking at how we would execute that. Then, when she identified Rika as a potential hire, everything came together rather quickly.
[Downtown’s international A&R director, Taeko Saito joined the company in Los Angeles in 2015. She now also serves as creative director of Downtown Music Japan. Creative Manager Rika Yasumoto was previously a manager at Rising Productions where she was responsible for the creative direction of Japan’s pop star/actress/model Namie Amuro.]
Do you partner with labels on projects?
There are two notable ones, Mom + Pop Records here in New York, and Chess Club out of the UK. We have joint ventures with them to sign songwriter artists to publishing labels. In some cases, they are the label and, in the other instances, the songwriters are signed to other labels. But it’s interesting to also have their creative feedback.
A general observation of music publishing today is that publishers are increasingly getting involved with the developmental process of its songwriter artists.
An untold story about publishers doing development is simply the amount of time, effort, and energy that publishers and their writers spend creating music that eventually comes out on record labels. For any major pop album, dozens and dozens of sessions are going on around the world to hopefully land a spot on one of those albums that the label will be putting out. There’s rarely any funding from a record company during those writing sessions which are ultimately the building blocks for what the record company will release.
A general criticism leveled at major labels is that due to a chaotic decade of slipping music sales they operate with reduced staff and there’s less emphasis on artist development than there once was.
Yep, and publishers really picked up the slack during those years, and I think that we are all better off for it; that publishers have continued to invest and fund the livelihood of songwriters that wake up every day and go into the studio and write songs which ultimately become the product that the record companies put out. It’s interesting that more and more we are meeting with writing artists. It used to be getting the record deal was the be all, and the end all (of music careers). Now they are coming in, and they already might have a touring profile; they might just be looking for a distribution deal, and their publishing partner is not only providing financing, but is also providing creative (direction), and helping these artist-writers define who they are as artists in a way that record companies used to in that capacity.
Interestingly, music publishers were more educated in copyright infringement, and better prepared to deal with it in the late ‘90s and after than the labels. After all music publishers had been dealing with infringement since the birth of their industry
Very true. If you think about it, the music publishing business was really in the business of licensing, and the record business was always in the business of selling. These are fundamentally different business practices requiring very different business mindsets. It has been fascinating to meet with friends of mine in the record business who are now looking at their catalog-earning albums that they released years ago as being really meaningful revenue streams again because of the payments from streaming services which is something that publishers are really aware from over time.
As well, there’s been the proliferation of specialty TV channels using music. That revenue stream continues to trickle in from around the world.
That is exactly right, and publishers have long been accustomed to chasing pennies from tens of thousands different licensees around the world, either directly or through collection societies.
Record companies weren’t.
Record companies were largely focused on first weekend (sales) and after 18 months many labels deemed (music) product as catalog, and they were no longer working it. Publishers dealt with the business of their song copyrights individually and as a catalog.
Downtown will soon unveil Songtrust for Business, essentially expanding its Songtrust service for publishers and companies. Explain the different various tiers in Songtrust.
Songtrust is a royalty collection platform. It has several different products. We have our B to C platform which is open to anyone. People can sign up on the site, collect royalties from 40 plus collection societies around the world, and avail themselves to all of the direct digital relationships and other registration capabilities that we have. It’s a very lightweight term. A simple term of one year. We take a small percentage for collection, and they don’t have to put up their whole catalog. They can put up song by song if they want, or even a percentage of their music on a by song basis. It really allows for tremendous flexibility and really democratizes the process of royalty collection for songwriters at any level.
That’s the product Downtown has had in the market since 2011.
Several years ago (in 2013) we introduced our B to E product, our Enterprise product initially in a partnership with CDBaby where we are white labeling the service for other distribution partners. People like CDBaby are distributing hundreds of thousands of albums and singles, and hundreds of thousands of artists who write their own music, but previously had no capacity to collect all of their music publishing royalties from around the world. So this is a simple addition to add to their package. We also do that with The Orchard now and we signed DistroKid as a client.
We are becoming in a way the default music publishing administration partner and platform for other services out there.
What we are launching next is Songtrust Business a platform for publishers, and rights holders of all sizes to be able to tap into the Songtrust platform and collect royalties in any particular mark A great example would be if you are a publisher in the UK. and you have great connectivity and relationships with the PRS and nMCPS and you feel comfortable with what you are doing in the UK, but you haven’t expanded yet. You don’t have relationships with other publishing partners to sub-publish your catalog or you are simply looking for a streamlined way to collect your royalties efficiently. You can utilize Songtrust to register your copyrights directly to the different societies around the world.
When will the Songtrust Business launch?
We are in beta right now with selected clients and rolling it out more broadly in the coming months.
Where are you from?
I was born in Kingston in upstate New York and was raised on Long Island. Other than a short stay with Virgin Records in L.A., I have been in New York since I was 16.
You attended Baruch College. I’m not familiar with the school.
It’s part of the City University of New York. It was an amazing place to go to school. I was taken accounting classes and market classes and political science classes. But only classes that began sometime between 7:15 AM and 8:30 AM so I could get to work on time. I also did the late seminars. The ones that start at 7 PM or 7:30 PM.
You were working at the RCA Music Group?
I was. Right out of high school. I was first in New York. Then I was in L.A. a couple of times with them. I was working in the international department of RCA. I was an International market coordinator. But I was only there for 9 months. Then I moved onto Virgin in Los Angeles in 2000. That also was a very short stay before I moved back to New York City.
Did you graduate from Baruch College?
While at RCA, I stopped, and then I went back. I ended up being just a few credits shy and throwing in the towel in 2004. I got a letter in 2009 saying that my credits were about to expire and if I wanted to come back and finish I could. I ended up going back in 2009 after I started Downtown. I had to take a minor. Any topic, right?. I love political science so. “I’m going to minor in political science.” I took four classes over a year or so and I finally graduated in 2009. It was an amazing experience. I sent my mother a photo of the diploma, and it all worked out from there.
New York’s mayor Bill de Blasio. and media and entertainment commissioner Julie Menin recently announced the results of the first-ever economic impact study of New York City’s music industry. As co-founder of New York Is Music, a coalition dedicated to developing the music industry in New York, do you have an opinion if the city could be doing more for the creative community, particularly the songwriting sector?
Absolutely. New York is Music has been an amazing experience. We have been pulling together all of these disparate corners of the music industry that, maybe, are very well organized in their own category–whether it be recorded music or songwriters, publishers, live, music education–and throwing them under the New York is Music umbrella to work with the city and the state. Identifying what is here. Identifying the problems and then looking to see what kind of public/private partnerships can exist to solve them. The economic study that Julie undertook was the first step by the city to quantify what is here.
When de Blasio appointed Julie Menin in 2016 as commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (MOME), he also expanded the agency’s portfolio to include music. This marks the first time a New York City agency had been given a mandate to support and promote the music industry in New York. Music wasn’t being included previously?
No. Music was only added to the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment in 2016. And one of the first projects was to quantify the size and the scale of the music business here. New York City and New York State have a complicated relationship, to say the least. Of the challenges, of course, is to navigate the opportunities that are state level opportunities for partnerships, and the opportunities that exist at the city level. At the state level, we have been pushing for a music production tax credit which would be akin to what they have done with film and television productions We have been successful in having a bill introduced and passed in both the assembly and the senate. We are now working with the governor to see if he can fit it into his executive plan as well. That’s one of our big hopes on the economic development side.
[The first-ever economic impact study of New York City’s music industry, conducted by Boston Consulting Group, establishes New York as one of the largest—if not the largest—music ecosystems in the world. It found that the sector supports nearly 60,000 jobs, accounts for $5 billion in wages, and generates $21 billion in total economic output for the city. The study also found that New York City is a center for digital music innovation and services. With over 70 digital music start-ups, the Big Apple has twice as many digital music companies as either San Francisco or Los Angeles.]
The three areas of focus for us….it’s not just about economic development and looking tax subsidies and things like that but really looking at the broader music ecosystem. Are there things that the city and the state and the state separately can be doing to make New York a more hospitable place for creatives? What already exists here that can be pumped up? For example, there’s an incredible organization in New York called SpaceWorks which takes under-utilized real estate and then effectively leases it out as rehearsal space to folks in the performing arts, visual arts, and now music . We have been pushing for additional funding for SpaceWorks and introducing SpaceWorks to the broader music industry in New York. There are some really tremendous rehearsal spaces at very reasonable price on par with anything that you would find in any other music capital around the world like Nashville, Los Angeles, or London. Really in premier locations.
The other point that is exciting about New York is that for the longest time people around the world would think about New York as being Manhattan south of 59th Street. The broader definition of New York City, including all 5 boroughs (Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and Staten Island) is really exciting and, frankly, (the other four boroughs) is where so much of the creativity is happening, and where there is more affordable space than people give New York credit for. But there’s still a long way to go.
There’s a lack of identification of New York’s musical past. While there is a Bowery Pub Crawl tour, and a city music tour that includes Strawberry Fields in Central Park, and a Greenwich Village tour, I’d jump at a musical tour that would explore the original Tin Pan Alley section of West 28th Street between Broadway and Sixth Avenue.
Stay tuned. New York’s music history is an inspiration in, and of its own. One of the areas that we have been focusing on is working with people associated with tourism, the hotel industry, and otherwise around the opportunities that exist. When you think of the number of people that come to New York and do their own working tours of sites related to New York’s music history, it’s incredible. So over the next couple of months, you are going to see some programs roll out that we are working with New York is Music around the cultural pieces.
And then lastly, and I would argue most importantly, some of the programs that we are working on are around music education because, as the study pointed out, we do have the largest music ecosystem in the world. New York public schools could certainly use more assistance in funding when it comes to music education, and trying to connect the dots between the music industry and public school education is critical. It is critical not only for today but for the next generation. There are countless incredible musicians who have emerged from New York who can point to a public school teacher who got them inspired, who got them excited, who got them from being a fan to taking it seriously. As a city, I think that we seriously need to invest in that part of the education process.
With all of the noise going on in American politics right now are you concerned that creative voices are being muted?
Yeah. But I think that now is an incredible time because you have unbelievable levels of engagement, right? Certainly what this (presidential) election showed in the United States, and some places it’s happening around the world, people are paying attention and showing up and are interested in engaging.
One of the things that has inspired me over the past couple of months since the election is simply the amount of inbound phone calls that I have received from people saying, “Hey, I have a program with XY&Z can you helped me reach 12&3 and have them support this or that show? Perform a song. We are doing a charity event. We are looking to do a protest here on this day.”
The number of people not just within the music industry but people who are looking at the music industry at this time to spread the message and help engage people is amazing. You are seeing it across the spectrum. Not just the big headline women event stuff. Not just the big organizations you hear about. Things closer to home. A lot of people are not only thinking about things on a global scale but that if you want to see something happen in your own community you can just engage, and do it. Like fix your own home, right? A lot of conversations I’ve had with songwriters signed to Downtown, and with friends in the music industry are people are asking the question of what can they do that has a real direct impact today?
Unlike the ‘60s, we are not hearing an abundance of protest sentiments in music; other than in rap.
We are seeing songwriters, and artists expressing themselves in different ways that are more direct and more meaningful. If you think back to that era of the 1960s, recording a song, and putting it out, was probably the way to reach the widest number of people. But when songwriter artists that are major celebrities in themselves, and have a direct line to fans–whether it’s social media or email lists or being able to get on television or get on the radio and start talking–they are reaching their fans directly in real-time commentary. Over time we are going to see that translate into the art itself. The immediate response is just to go out there and reach people.
There are also more pathways to reach people today with a protest message including through social media, and through comedians and talk show hosts on television that were not as evident in the ‘60s.
That’s exactly right. Musicians were the only sound bell back then whereas today musicians are only a portion of the culture industries that are speaking out.
Downtown has been very successful in attaining samples. Is this a practice that the company promotes or do these samples happen haphazardly?
I think it’s part of having a really strong focus on great A&R. There are instances where these things happen because artists are fans of particular songs or fans of songwriters signed to us. There are other instances where we are making recommendations to producers, and it comes through the grapevine 3 or 6 months later, “We’ve got to clear that now.” It’s really more about having active relationships.
Publishers used to have this job of getting covers of their catalogs which was a fairly straight forward thing. Now, if you listen to the number of songs out there on the chart that incorporate elements of a song, the role of a publisher is so much deeper because you not only have to say, “Hey, here’s an unreleased song, go and cut it”—which, by the way, is still one of the most important roles of a music publisher. One of the greatest accomplishments for a music publisher can be creating a new home for an unreleased song copyright. But the ability to dive deep into the catalog, whether or not you are suggesting a verse from a song that is 80 or 90 years old or making a recommendation of a bass line that came out 5 years ago, there’s so much you can do by mixing and matching, and having that kind of creative dialogue with writers, producers, artists. That’s also really exciting.
Meanwhile, all the small stuff adds up in royalties.
It’s been a penny business. It’s become a micro-penny business.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.