Who Are the PROs Protecting?


Intellectual property, creations of the mind: these are what Performing Rights Organizations are charged with protecting. When artists are represented by licensing companies, they are entitled to compensation each time one of their songs is performed. Anywhere. On television, in movies, on the radio, online, and even in the bar down the street or the restaurant on the corner. This is fair, it’s right, it’s good for the artists. Right?

TechRadar’s Gary Marshall points out, “PRS [Performing Rights Societies] For Music represents songwriters and composers, not major record labels, and for many artists they’re the only source of income. If U2 covers an obscure indie band’s song or Radio 1 plays it, PRS For Music ensures the songwriter gets paid.” Everyone can agree that’s as it should be, right? But do music licensing companies go too far? Many would argue that the over-regularization and charge-for-everything attitude are actually detrimental for some artists.

Music in movies, TV shows, videos, radio broadcasts, and other mediums serves several purposes. Besides helping creating mood and prop up the story, it also gives invaluable exposure to artists. An example: The Knifings, a Toronto band, are not a household name by any means, but that is changing as one of their pieces has made it to the hit show, Entourage. Another: Young Galaxy, another unknown band, made it onto the Lifetime show, Army Wives. Leader Stephen Ramsay said there were far more people checking their website and “sending emails saying, “I’d never heard of you, now I’ve just bought your record.”

And that’s the point. We hear something we like, and we want to buy it. But the constant hounding from PROs can make it difficult for some bands to be heard in this way – and that is the way they get the most exposure, and by extension, the most money. Massive Attack thought they hit it big when their song, “Teardrop,” was chosen as the theme song for House.

Huge exposure potential – but the show yanked the song in every country but the US because of licensing issues. They could not get it licensed (with reasonable fees, presumably) in the other countries, so they opted to produce their own piece entitled simply “House.” This is a blow for Massive Attack, especially considering that they are British. They are not only losing the royalties from the song playing each week, they are losing exposure that could boost sales tremendously.

In this case, at least, it seems that the “protection” of the licensing companies is a bit more like a stranglehold.

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Going a Bit Too Far?


Sting operations, late night recon, and a bust at a bar. What did Boomer’s Sports Cellar do? Sell something other than alcohol? Sell to minors? Worse. They played Taylor Swift. During Karaoke night. The Sports Cellar, as it is known in its hometown of Lewiston, Idaho, allegedly used some of the CMA Entertainer of the Year’s pieces without paying the proper licensing fees to BMI. Ms. Swift and BMI are suing the small bar for “unspecified damages” – though it seems that Taylor only missed out on a few dollars a month from the bar. Hardly worth the effort and expense of a sting operation, isn’t it?

According to reports by TMZ and other entertainment sites, an agent was sent to the bar on an undercover mission. Even licensing companies admit that it is impossible to know where any one song or artist is being played – they select random bars on the theory that they must be playing something, and chances are it is licensed by them. They hit pay dirt with the Sports Cellar. While one site wrote, “The Sports Cellar was ripping off Taylor Swift’s music without paying rights fees, and they were even using it for karaoke,” the general consensus is that this is a stunning example of the big rich licensing companies picking on the poor little bar owners over a few dollars.

Each time a song is played, the owner of the establishment must have paid the proper licensing fees. Typically, bar, store, and restaurant owners choose to purchase a blanket license from one or all of the three major licensing companies, so they are covered. It is unclear whether the Sports Cellar paid any fees, or just no fees to BMI.

Copyright infringement is a serious issue in the music industry, and some question whether using that undercover agent and recon time and money to investigate internet piracy and illegal downloading would be a better use of resources. Yes, yes it would be.

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Psycho Acoustics


At the risk of dating yourself, do you remember when Vanilla Ice “borrowed” the riff from Queen and Bowie’s far superior “Under Pressure”?  He apparently tweaked enough that he felt it was original to him and not subject to copyright laws – but not tweaked enough that listeners wouldn’t instantly recognize it. Welcome to the world of psycho acoustics.  A Santa Cruz business was using the process to produce computer-generated version of the Beatles songs.  The owner, of BlueBeat, Hank Risen, claims that because the song is different, it is his to sell.  A federal judge disagreed.

Here is Risen’s defense.  He made what he calls “authorized” copies of Beatles songs to sell for less than a quarter: “…the original sounds were partitioned into segments for observation. These segments were analyzed by artistic operators who, employing principles of psycho-acoustics and advanced harmonic analysis, synthesized an independent parametric model of the sounds.”  He created, he claims, “new and original” pieces in a “new virtual three-dimensional computer-staged environment.”

Apparently Judge John Walter didn’t get it either.  He ruled that the site had to go dark, saying, “The recordings on the BlueBeat website were not ‘independent fixations of other sounds’ but were indeed copies that directly or indirectly recaptured the actual sounds fixed in plaintiffs’ recordings.”

So, nice try, but no.  In an even more bizarre case, a man started a site that posits that the Beatles never broke up at all.  One day, out walking, this man stumbled, hitting his head and rendering him unconscious.  He woke in a parallel universe, one in which the Beatles had never broken up and continued to release albums.  He brought one of these back with him to this world.  Maybe next time he wanders into the parallel universe, he can bring back some Elvis.

While the “new album” sounds a great deal like a mashed together version of this world’s Beatles albums, “James” (surprisingly, he doesn’t like to use his real name) says, “I had a feeling some of the songs had a familiar sound to them as well. The only conclusion I can come up with is even though in the alternate universe The Beatles hadn’t broken up, that didn’t mean their future music ideas disappeared… I wouldn’t be surprised if in the alternate dimension when The Beatles were songwriting they brought melodies and lyrics they had in their head to the songwriting table and hashed them out with the rest of the group, where as in our dimension they didn’t have the other band members influences.”

Apple Corps and EMI Music released Beatles songs for mp3 on September 9 (coincidentally, the same day “James” took his cosmic trip), so if you want non-psycho acoustic music from this world, the officially licensed versions are your best bet.

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Getting Games Noticed at the App Store


There is an app for everything.  That is iPhone’s claim to fame, and at 100,000 apps and growing, there really is an app for everything you could possibly want – and then some.  Of the 100,000 apps about twenty percent are games.  The math is easy on that one, but how about adding 125,000 developers into the mix?  There is an incredible array of games and game makers, so how does any one app become a standout?

Super Happy Fun Fun CEO Mark Pierce summed it up neatly:  “How do you make money if you have a 99 cent app and there’s about 50,000 game developers and I imagine 20 to 30 thousand of the apps are games and 70 percent of the apps are free?”

It helps to be big.  Names already established in the gaming world, such as Electronic Arts and Gameloft, have a leg up on the competition.  But even small, one man operations can get noticed.  And the key is quality, according to Rock Ridge Games CEO Mike Mann.  “You have to focus not so much in the games that your competition is doing, but in the quality that they’re doing. And when you’re putting out low quality games to get stuff out quickly, you’re not going to make any money. You’re not going to go anywhere. So we have to raise up our quality level and raise the bar on what we expect out of ourselves in order to compete with these heavy hitters that have entered the market.”

In the App Store itself, there are various ways an app can get more exposure, increasing the likelihood that customers will download it.  The App Store has a “What’s Hot” section and a top twenty sales chart.  In each category, such as games, cooking, travel, etc., there are a dozen or so featured titles, and a “Staff Picks” section can increase exposure as well.  Getting on one of these lists is essential, especially when there are tens of thousands of other games from which to choose.  And it’s worth it to get noticed:  in 2008, game downloads generated $46 million in revenue.  That is projected to rise to $2.8 billion by 2014 as more people turn to their iPhone or iPod for entertainment.

The upside for iPhone users is that they are reaping the benefit of this fierce competition.  Everyone is raising the quality level to compete, and this means more great games for users.  The developers may be wishing for a less crowded field, but it is excellent news for the App Store customer.

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Licensing Fees and Live Music


Part of what makes any bar experience complete is the live music.  Big names often start in bars and clubs where they are just another act hoping to make it.  The Beatles played the Cavern Club; Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington had the Cotton Club.  Is this era ending though?  Is live music going the way of smoking in bars?  While it is not likely for live music to be totally eradicated from bars and clubs, licensing companies are making it more difficult for many bar owners to allow bands to play.

How many times have you heard “Brown Eyed Girl” or Margaritaville” in a bar?  Technically, each time a band plays a cover, the club owner needs to secure the rights from one of the three major licensing companies (Broadcast Music Inc., the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, or SESAC).  Similarly, whenever a song plays on the radio, television, or in ads, the producers must have paid for its use.

For instance, BMI owns the rights to songs by Taylor Swift, Mariah Carey, Lady Gaga, and Kanye West, among many others.  If a band wanted to play songs by any of these artists, the club or bar would have to pay BMI a licensing fee.  Instead of paying for each individual song, they can purchase a blanket licensing fee, which covers all the songs that company handles.  In essence, what this means is that any song other than an original would require a licensing fee to be paid.  A blanket fee runs about $650 a year – from each company.

The law is completely on the side of the licensing companies.  They do own the rights to the songs, and they argue that they have to ensure that the artists they represent are receiving fair pay for their songs.  But small bands, who have seen their gigs dry up as clubs choose to end live music rather than wrangle with the licensing companies, disagree.  Dan Preston of St. Cloud, Minnesota band Preston and Paulzine says, “Fully 50 percent of the clubs that we were gigging at five years ago have shut down their live music…They’re [the licensing companies] protecting Bruce Springsteen, who doesn’t really need a whole lot more money.”

While the law is on their side, it is unfortunate that such strict regulation will hurt the people that make the least amount of profit off these songs and endanger live music in its most accessible form.

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New Britney Spears iPhone App


It’s Britney!  And it’s $1.99 that you’ll never get back. The aptly named iPod and iPhone app, “It’s Britney,” was released to mixed reviews.  Britney Spears herself tweeted to fans, “See there really is an app for everything,” not appearing to realize that that was not very flattering.  Yes, there is an app for everything, even completely inane things.  Perhaps that is harsh; you decide.  Would you part with two of your hard-earned dollars for the following?

  • Home screens which are updated frequently
  • Twitter updates
  • Britney photos
  • A sparkler feature that allows you to do the iPhone version of the lighter at a concert
  • The chance to be a backup dancer.  You can superimpose your picture over the dancers’ bodies.
  • And the best, when you shake your iPhone, it will say “It’s Britney, bitch.”

The iPhone app has been roundly criticized by everyone from PC World to New York MagazinePC World had this to say about the new app, “Why can’t Apple’s App Store overlords exercise more discretion when it counts?… Should we have expected any less from Britney? After all, an iPhone app is the perfect byproduct of our celebrity (and iPhone) obsessed culture.”

Not surprisingly, the Britney Spears website raved about the new app.  A fan writes, “Been waiting for decent Britney app!  This is so cool!  Cannot wait to check it every morning for the latest on America’s Queen of Pop.”  This Brit fan is far from alone: the pop star has nearly four million followers on Twitter, ensuring that the app will have strong sales, if not a long shelf life.

Britney Spears was the driving force behind the so-called “One Woman Economy,” valued at $110 to $120 million a year.  She helped paparazzi, perfume maker Elizabeth Arden, entertainment magazines, and others rake in millions, and this is one more attempt to capitalize on the Britney franchise.  Will it work?  Probably.  Is it worth $1.99?  Probably not.

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The Thrill Is Gone: The End of Music Games as We Know Them?


It wasn’t the British Invasion that Harmonix wanted:  instead of crowds thronging the stores, screaming like the girls at the Ed Sullivan Theater, they got tepid sales when a Rock Band completely devoted to the Beatles was unleashed.  Are the lackluster sales of both the Beatles Rock Band and Guitar Hero5 indicators that the music video game has passed its prime and is on its way out?  It may be that the current model is on its way out – or needs to be in order to recapture the excitement the original games stirred in 2007.

Combined, Beatles Rock Band and Guitar Hero5 brought in $1.1 million in October.  Respectable.  So why does Gamasutra’s Matt Matthews write, “October’s sale figures brought with it new evidence of the crisis the genre is experiencing”?  Of all the games across all the platforms, only Beatles Rock Band for Wii made it into the top ten.  There were no other appearances in the top twenty.  But most damning:  in October 2007, Guitar Hero 3 sold 1.4 million copies in six days. The fifth edition seems a pale shadow of this, and DJ Hero doesn’t even compare.  This version has sold 120,000 in five days across all the gaming systems.

All games have taken a hit because of the economic downturn, but the music genre has taken it hardest of all.  Very simply, we’re sick of the same thing over and over.  Each new edition is not really new at all.  Dhani Harrison, who consulted with Harmonix on Rock Band, said, “I’m working on Rock Band 3 and making the controllers more real so people can actually learn how to play music while playing the game.”  A move like this could reignite excitement and draw in new fans of the game.

Northeastern University marketing researchers wrote in a recent blog post, Too Much of a Good Thing: Explaining the decline of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, “Once people own a music game, there is less reason to purchase another one.”  So simple, so why are Harmonix and Activision so reluctant to change their formula?  Whatever the reason, it is becoming abundantly clear that they need to break the mold they’ve created.

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An Uncharitable Act by the Government


Charity begins at home, but you’ll have to pay for it.  Charities have traditionally benefited from an exemption from paying royalties for music played during nonprofit events or in public places.  A new decision by the government in conjunction with the Office of Intellectual Property will end this exemption and force UK charities to shell out to the PPL (Phonographic Performance Limited), which represents music producers and artists.  As of April, 2010, the £750,000 annual funding will be pulled and charitable organizations will have to foot the bill themselves.

Though the fee is likely to be less than £100 a year for an organization, (so says the PPL, at least) the move is being decried by charities, led by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO).  The NCVO feels that it is “shameful” that charitable organizations be charged at all.  Says NCVO chief executive Stuart Etherington, “This scheme will make it impossible for small community-based charities or organisations to play music at their social and fundraising events because of the cost involved.”

A signal of the tightened economy, the move will have the side effect of creating a more simple system for charitable organizations.   Despite the NCVOs objections, could this actually benefit the third sector?   A government response to the Office of Intellectual Property consultation that led to the decision stated, “…almost all the representatives of the third sector organisations agreed that it would be preferable to have a simple licensing system, if possible with an affordable flat fee rather than to have a complex system with limited exemptions.”

The PPL defended its position, stating, “Music is hugely beneficial to charities and it is only right that the people who create, produce and perform the music should be paid for its use. Charities are not exempt or awarded special discounts for standard charges or costs. This applies to charges such as electricity and heating as well as for the use of music. Following this change in legislation, what we want to do is simplify the administration process for organisations so that they can continue to benefit from playing music legally.”

How will this work out for charities?  Take a look at the Berkshire organization, Keep Mobile, which transports the elderly and disabled.  In 2008, they were told by the Performing Rights Society (PRS) that they would have to pay royalties for the music they listened to on their eleven buses.  Each bus holds sixteen people, and the drivers depended on radios for traffic reports to ensure that they made pickups and drops on time.  PRS told Keep Mobile that it had to pay £858 a year or lose the radios: they had to lose the radios.

Keep Mobile’s manager, Sally Gibson, said at the time, “It is ridiculous we need a public performance license for this. We are just being treated like a commercial vehicle, there’s no concessions for charity vehicles, all our money is raised through donations.”

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Music-Sharing Website Continue to Attract Users


Despite all of the hoopla surround the Pirate Bay trials (which have been moved to next summer), royalty-free music-sharing websites continue to attract users from all over the world. According to a Threats Report released by McAfee on last week, the number of torrent sites grew by an astounding 300 percent after the Pirate Bay was ordered to shut down during the spring.

Torrent sites are popular because they contain popular music, movies and images for easy downloading, but also because they manage to circumvent any copyright issues. Or, so users thought. If copyright issues weren’t a problem, then why was the Pirate Bay targeted? According to VatorNews, when the Pirate Bay site went down following the trial, replacement sites came out of nowhere, filling in the need for new sites for indexing torrent files. The problem is that these sites aren’t protected by McAfee software, and put many users at risk for computer-related viruses. But users don’t seem to care. What they care about is being able to download royalty free music, movies and other forms of media through file-sharing means.

It doesn’t matter if the Pirate Bay is eventually shut down or not. Since its inception, file-sharing websites have grown in leaps and bounds. There will always be a new way to download and share files, as long as new technology continues to develop and evolve. That is part of the reason why the music industry is at a crossroads. What they are beginning to realize is that there has to be some sort of compromise. They won’t be able to charge everyone in the world who has downloaded royalty-free content with unrealistic fees. It’s impossible. One of the solutions has been to charge radio stations with royalty fees. But that is a dead end. The public doesn’t support it and it won’t have any affect on file-sharing users. The music industry needs to reevaluate its stance and work with file-sharing websites in order to find some common ground. Otherwise, the amount of file-sharing websites will continue to grow, and people all over the world will continue to use them without a second thought.

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Is there a mass exodus of app developers from iPhone?  Rogue Amoeba, which designs apps and software for MAC OS X, announced that is it leaving the iPhone app business.  Also leaving are Joe Hewitt, a Facebook iPhone app developer, and Second Gear.  Maybe “mass exodus” is an exaggeration, but a number of developers are unhappy with the Apple Store’s review process for new apps.  Here’s why:

Which app would you find more offensive or inappropriate:  one that lists the members of Congress and shows a little caricature of each or one that features a crying baby? You shake the iPhone to get it to stop. The Apple Store approved the baby-shaking app but vetoed the ode to Congress.  The reasoning?  No one seems sure, and that’s the problem.  The unclear, inconsistent, and mostly arbitrary review process is leaving many baffled – and they in turn are leaving the iPhone app business.

Rogue Amoeba is abandoning ship after months of delays as they tried to update the Airfoil Speakers Touch app (this app lets you stream audio from your MAC to iPhones, iPods, AirPort Express units, and more.  There is also a Windows version).  The app was rejected again and again because Rogue Amoeba used official Apple images of products like the iMac, MacBook Pro, and Safari.  The problem?  The images were supplied by Apple and were included in the original, approved version.  These were removed by Rogue Amoeba in the update, but not without protest.

Rogue Amoeba CEO Paul Kafasis wrote, “In the future, we hope that developers will be allowed to ship software without needing Apple’s approval at all, the same way we do on Mac OS X. We hope the App Store will get better, review times will be shorter, reviews will be more intelligent, and that we can all focus on making great software. Right now, however, the platform is a mess.”

Besides taking ideas for any new apps with them, Rogue Amoeba and other developers may also refuse to offer updates to existing apps, like Lineln, Audio Hijack Pro, and Pulsar.  That limits music fans ability to access online satellite radio, stream live music, digitize analogue music, and more.  There are other developers, but the current review process is alienating many of them and may deter others from contributing.

Joe Hewitt said, “I respect their right to manage their platform however they want, however I am philosophically opposed to the existence of their review process.  I am very concerned that they are setting a horrible precedent for other software platforms, and soon gatekeepers will start infesting the lives of every software developer.”

But the problem is more than just over-regularization; it’s the lack of consistency.  Apple does prohibit the use of its logos or images in apps, but they approved the original Airfoil.  Reject Congressional caricatures but keep the shaking baby.

With over 100,000 apps and scores of developers willing to endure the absurd review process, there is little chance that you will run out of iPhone music apps anytime soon.  But it may hasten the rise of freemium apps where developers are given more freedom.  We may have to put up with more junk like the shaken baby but we also will see better quality from developers who are sick of the Apple Store process.

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