Since the days of piano rolls, the Music Business has been riddled with unscrupulous charlatans—the sharks of the sharks—for whom even a relatively shrewd investor is nothing more than chum. It’s even worse than ever, as the lack of sales has put legit Producers into a veritable feeding frenzy for any project that’s funded. It’s gotten to the point that it’s almost a waste of time to discuss music before determining the budget, since nine times out of ten there isn’t enough money to fund the first day of recording anyway. Optimism runs amok and delusion abounds in this industry at the moment. Far more so than usual.
I bring this all to your attention to explain my seemingly paranoid freakout at the prospect of Rev homing in on my Billionheir. Surely, Kanish could make his own determinations as an investor. But this is the Music Business, after all, and I feel some responsibility for the lad. It’s not that he can’t fend for himself. Clearly he can. But without a firm understanding of how the money flows, investing in music is nothing short of foolhardy—more so now than ever. Regardless of how shrewd young Kanish proves to be, at this particular juncture he is under my tutelage, and I won’t allow him to make bad investments—and I say that as someone who absolutely abhors the word tutelage.
I don’t want to get too bogged down with all of the complexities of how people get paid in the Music Business, partly because it’s arcane, and mostly because it’s in an absolute state of flux given the rapid changes in technology. I have literally spent hours researching how Streaming services like Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube pay Independent Artists and Songwriters, and I can tell you that it’s nearly impossible to decipher, and is completely dependent on their revenues. How nice for them. And here I have to operate with risk.
Setting Streaming aside for the moment, there are really only three major revenue flows in the Music Business—sales, Publishing, and touring. And while it’s true that Streaming sites pay out some Mechanical Royalties that would fall under the umbrella of sales, they are currently insufficient to rely upon. Given the massive overhead, touring is also an unreliable profit center. That leaves but one viable place to earn money in music. Publishing.
Publishing is the writer’s share, and it’s the only share worth discussing at the moment. It’s where the big money is in this business, which is why the Major Labels have pretty much stopped fucking around with anything other than pop Artists. Bands require patience, effort, and time, and once they break, there is no guarantee the band can follow up their success with another hit song. And so it makes far more sense for a Label to align with Songwriter Producers and then swap out Singers like fashion plates. Make no mistake, these are indeed Singers and not Artists. The difference? A Singer delivers a message. An Artist has something to say.
Now, there are two halves to Publishing. There’s the Songwriter’s half, and the Publisher’s half. The Songwriter can surely administer her own Publishing, and thereby maintain 100 percent ownership of her song. But there are a number of advantages to signing with a Publishing company. For starters, a Publisher can help a Songwriter get her songs placed with Major-Label Artists. That alone can make a Publisher worthwhile, but that’s not the only advantage. There’s also licensing, which can be quite profitable. Especially if you’re the Beatles.
When a large portion of the Beatles’ catalog went on the market in 1985, Michael Jackson outbid Paul McCartney and snapped it up for $47 million, making Jackson a 50 percent stakeholder in most of McCartney’s early songs. That means Michael Jackson’s Publishing company was retaining half the total Publishing revenues, while McCartney and the Lennon estate would split the other half between them. Just as an aside, some people estimate the catalog to be worth well over a billion dollars today. Given the current state of things, I’m dubious.
In order for a song to be heard in a television show or a movie, the Publisher negotiates what’s called a licensing fee. In the case of the Beatles, that can be quite hefty, which is why you rarely hear their songs in movies or on television. The Beatles’ catalog is often considered prohibitive, even for Studios willing to risk hundreds of millions of dollars at a time. Then there’s the television networks, who prefer to take advantage of all the desperate Independent Artists these days by licensing their songs for as little as $500 in total. And that’s for a hit show that reaches millions of viewers and might even be syndicated. So why would Songwriters accept such a shitty one-sided deal? Exposure.
When it comes to pop music, the Songwriter Producer makes the most sense for everyone involved. For starters, a Songwriter can justify making a record speculatively because there’s a huge potential payoff should the song become a hit. The Labels prefer this arrangement because they get to hear the produced track before their Singer even performs it. And the Singer loves to work with the Songwriter Producer because she can be involved (even if just a little), as a cowriter. For a Singer, a cowriter credit is as good as gold.
Given this, an established Singer—that is to say, one who might be considered a Superstar—could easily command half the writing credit (if not more) without contributing anything of substance beyond her vocal performance. Why? Because the Superstar can nearly guarantee the song will be a hit just by singing the fucking thing. One hundred percent of nothing is nothing. Fifty percent of a shitload is half a shitload. And a hit begets more hits.
Meanwhile, Independent bands and Singer-Songwriters who write their own material are often unwilling to even discuss paying a Producer’s back end out of their Publishing, despite the fact that they rarely have a budget worth a damn. So, let’s see if I’ve got this straight. You want me to Produce you for what amounts to nothing more than a stipend as you offer me no real opportunity to profit-share should you succeed from my efforts? Kindly fuck off.
As a result, many bands and Songwriter Artists are choosing to Produce themselves. In fact, it seems as though everyone and his sister refers to themselves as a Producer. Recordists are Producers. Musicians are Producers. Singers are Producers. Artists are Producers. Even the damn Intern is a Producer. Which is kind of strange when you think about it. Why would anyone and everyone want stake claim to a title that clearly no longer has any real value?
Along with pop music, there are really only two other genres in which it currently makes any sense for someone like me to Produce—EDM (electronic dance music) and hip-hop. The Producer position in those genres is paid as a Songwriter because the track is considered half the song. Which makes me wonder, why the hell should I work with Artists making anything other than pop, EDM, or hip-hop? Those are the only genres within which I can currently profit as a Producer, and that’s because they include a stake in the Songwriting.
I’m not sure why I thought it would be a good idea to bring Kanish to Mel Odious Sound yesterday. Bringing a Billionheir to a large recording complex full of Producers is like opening a bag of chips at a seagull convention. It wouldn’t be long before every Producer within earshot swooped in to aggressively pitch his latest and greatest pet project, most of which would likely prove unprofitable.
Rev is obviously going to pitch a project, and it very well may be something amazing. But as I’ve pointed out, in order for Kanish to make a profit, he would have to pick up half the Publishing—a non-starter for the Rev. He’s not a Songwriting Producer, so he likely doesn’t have a sufficient portion of the Publishing to share. And even if he did, no seasoned Producer is going to give half of their equity in a song in order to basically secure a small loan from an outside investor. There’s no upside.
For starters, Kanish has no channels of Distribution beyond Streaming, which is already available to anyone and everyone who wants it, and which is currently only profitable for the Major Labels and the stockholders of the Streaming services themselves. Everyone else is getting screwed. And please don’t quote me the Douchebag Big Tech Billionaires running big Streaming Corporations. They are literally lining their pockets with the would-be earnings of Artists and Songwriters alike. What they claim as fair is anything but.
Frankly, I don’t think we should be comfortable with Spotify taking a 30 percent margin off the top, and then disbursing the Tiger’s Share of the remaining 70 percent to the Major Labels who have already negotiated top dollar for access to their catalog. This has resulted in nothing but some remaining scraps trickling down to the tens of thousands of Independent Artists out there who just want to make a living. You can’t make a living off scraps, or even a trickle, for that matter.
Mark my words, we are currently witnessing the greatest heist in the annals of the Music Business, and that’s saying something given its history. Can you say Napster?
Stunningly, the only place that Songwriters can make sufficient Performance Royalties is radio—a medium that is coming up on its hundred-year anniversary. To make matters worse, the Major Distributors still have radio all locked up, and without airplay, there’s no hit. So even now, more than twenty years into the Internet revolution, the odds of breaking through the artistic cacophony without Major-Label Distribution are impossibly low. So much for the Internet leveling the playing field.
At this point, only Congress can solve the problem. And despite the fact that Streaming has been around since the mid-aughts, Congress has done nothing to deal with the issue. Why? Because it’s far cheaper for Big Tech to line the pockets of lobbyists and fund the campaigns of politicians who gladly ignore the issue than it is to pay Artists and Songwriters a fair rate for their work, my friends.
Same is it ever was.
Just so I’m clear, there is a debate to be had as to how much Songwriters and Artists should be paid for Streaming. A radio Spin can reach millions. A Stream rarely reaches more than a few listeners. Clearly, a new method of calculation is required. But that doesn’t mean that we should just sit by as the Big Tech Douchebags rob an entire generation of royalties all so they can sell their Streaming Corporation for billions down the line. I mean, that is the end game, after all. At which point, profit for the new majority stockholder will be all but impossible. How will anyone get paid then?
Annapurna cleared our dinner plates from the table and the Dishwashing Sikh went straight to work cleaning up the kitchen. Most of the day was spent resting from our extensive road trip. Normally, I’d have clothes to wash and errands to run, but when you have a full staff, these sorts of things are taken care of for you. Which left me plenty of time to consider Kanish’s harebrained scheme.
While Kanish’s idea to pitch the Pharcyde on a Ditty that I currently own 100 percent of the Publishing on was most certainly an interesting proposal, I found a number of problems with the plan. For starters, each member of the Pharcyde—Fatlip, Slimkid3 (pronounced Slimkid Tre), Romye, and Imani—is surely locked into deals with Labels and Publishing companies. Just getting them to perform the Song would require multiple permissions and clearances. Further problematic, the Pharcyde would rightly want half the overall Publishing for themselves. I’m certainly not opposed to giving up half the Publishing, but let’s face it, that would get halved again upon landing a Distributor. Which might all be worthwhile, but it does significantly dilute the shares.
Then there’s the word Douchebag—a term generally used by white boys from Jersey, not black guys ostensibly from the Hood. Even if the Pharcyde were comfortable featuring the word in their rap, I highly doubt that Douchebags driving in Priuses is a Hood sort of problem.
Logistics could also prove problematic. In my experience, working with the Pharcyde can be similar to herding butterflies. But then, they probably still think of me as the wide-eyed ponytailed kid who worked for the studio. Neither characterization would be fair to make this many years later.
Kanish and I retired to the side deck to enjoy our usual late-night Fatty.
“I’ve been thinking about it,” I said. “Let’s make the Douchebag Song.”
“You mean you will call the Pharcyde?” Kanish yelled enthusiastically.
“Maybe. I mean, we can certainly try, but I’ll warn you now, it could be prohibitively expensive to even attempt to get involved with them. The lawyers’ bills alone—”
“This is wonderful news!” Kanish interrupted.
I’m not sure how “prohibitively expensive” was wonderful news, but then, I was talking to a Billionaire’s Heir.
“We also need a Plan B,” I said.
“Yes, yes, yes, a Plan B. I love it. Tell me it!”
“Well, if we can’t get the Pharcyde, or even part of the Pharcyde, I think we should find a young, talented, up-and-coming rapper and break off a piece of the Publishing for his rap. Here’s the bottom line. You’ve got $100K cash at the moment. Actually, a bit less at this point. “
“Ninety K, but you act as if I cannot get more money.”
“Wait. I thought you were cut off.”
“That is temporary, let me tell you. All that is required is for you to say the right things to my father.”
“Kanish, am I supposed to call your father?”
“You do not call Paneer. Paneer calls you.”
“Ah. Okay. Well, let’s deal with the capital you have available now. Since we’re only cutting one song, even bringing in the Pharcyde, $90K is surely plenty of money to get the product made. But it’s definitely not enough money to garner radio play, and as an Independent entity, Streaming doesn’t pay out enough to us for us to parlay a profit. So we’re going need Distribution.”
“That’s right. We’re going to need a Major Label involved to make this profitable. The good news is that if the Pharcyde is attached, it may be easier to attract a Distributor.”
Kanish and I spent the next while discussing the Music Business, in particular the flow of money. It was a crash course, which included the history along with the current realities. I’m happy to report that Kanish understood the basics, which is what I would expect. I mean, if a Billionaire’s Heir can’t follow the money, who can? That said, I still had concerns.
“About the Rev and his offer to play you some music,” I said.
“You don’t need to worry, you know.”
“You are my Guru. I’m not going to just hand out money for projects such as this without the counsel of my Guru.”
“That’s good to know,” I replied.
I couldn’t have been prouder of young Kanish than I was at that moment.
“Now, tell me!” Kanish goaded. “What is today’s lesson?”
I’m not sure what he thought the past two hours were, but Kanish expected something a bit pithier, I suppose. Even at this early stage in our time together, I’d read so many Buddhist and Hindu proverbs that they were practically spilling out of my ears. And while I probably could have come up with something better, this one happened to be on the tip of my brain and seemed entirely appropriate.
“If the mind be fixed on the acquirement of any object, that object will be attained.”
“Excellent! It shall be done!” Kanish replied.
I don’t doubt it for a second.
Chapter 11 – Wake Up Calling
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