Impediments to curators that are not corporate giants
The symbiotic relationship between artists and influential patrons of art is an age-old one. The most noteworthy of these in history is the well-documented one between the iconic painter and sculptor Michaelangelo Buonarotti with the Medicis of Florence. This dynamic has stood the test of time and applies to all forms of art. In the US, the ability for a pop or rock song to become a hit is largely tied to the song getting airplay on terrestrial radio. This is despite the fact that music consumers have the ability to discover music via a plethora of alternate venues that include Internet radio, Youtube, Spotify, Apple Music, television shows, movies or clubs, bars, coffee shops, and retail stores. Despite the pervasiveness of these avenues in shaping public opinion, terrestrial radio airplay is largely (i.e. except in a few cases) a pre-requisite for the ubiquity of a pop song in the musical mainstream. This gives terrestrial radio playlist programmers infinite power despite the fact that their integrity around curation has been questionable at best since the mid-90s. There ought to be avenues for curators that at least possess more than a surface-level knowledge of pop/rock music and a commitment to a strong curational ethic in a realm that they are free to decide on the boundaries of. Furthermore, if the goal of these curators (that operate outside the corporate realm) is not to turn curation into a business wherein they personally sell advertising against their curated collection of songs, they only have two legal options:
a. Internet radio – This involves being tied to a royalty structure (especially in the US) that either financially cripples them and/or impedes their ability to scale.
b. Podcasts and Youtube videos – Only being able to feature copyrighted music by an artist/band after securing legal clearance.
The latter of the two options is problematic and its issues are most pronounced on Youtube. Prior to 2013, users that uploaded videos to Youtube and added clips of pop/rock songs to their videos could do so without worrying about Youtube stripping out the audio and undermining the quality and integrity of the final uploaded video. Since 2013, audio being stripped out by Youtube is the norm. Now, it is understood that the user of copyrighted music in a video uploaded to Youtube is not an option. More importantly, those that want to use copyrighted music clips in their video do not even have the option to pay for the use of this music. The herculean (and often unsuccessful) effort to get the required permissions to feature copyrighted music clip in a video dissuades content creators on Youtube and podcast platforms from creating videos that could be greatly enhanced by music clips. Furthermore, it undermines the ability of that video to be a viable promotional tool for the pieces of music that the video creator would like to feature in his or her video. This issue is not unique to Youtube. It applies to most platforms that showcase user-generated content (alongside content offered by larger media entities). My inclination to focus on Youtube stems from the fact that it is the single most influential platform that determines whether or not a piece of video content will “go viral”.
A viral video often marries a memorable and seductive (and sometimes this is rooted in unadulterated stupidity) visual set to a piece of music. Noteworthy examples include “Friday” by Rebecca Black, “Gangnam Style” by Korean popstar PSY, and “Somebody that I used to know” by Gotye featuring Kimbra. These viral hits have the ability to transcend the seemingly insurmountable barriers to popularity erected by the playlist programmers at terrestrial radio. In the case of the examples above, the content creators (of the videos) are also the rights owners for the music featured in the video. That being said, the ability for a piece of video content to go viral is NOT limited to videos featuring music from the rights owners of the music.
I am of the belief that making it difficult for individual content creators to legally use copyrighted music does a disservice to the musicians that create this music. It denies them a critical and powerful avenue for promotion and potential revenue. A system which embodies some combination of the following would be incredibly beneficial to the creators of copyrighted music:
a. A nominal (i.e. a fraction of a cent) fee per stream paid by the content creator that uses copyrighted music in his or her video on a platform (e.g. Youtube) to the rights holders of the music clips featured in the content.
b. A predefined split between the content curator, the platform, and the music rights holders of the advertising revenue when advertising is sold against that piece of content.
The above would help alleviate two of the key impediments to the commercial prospects of a music artist or band – namely obscurity and the ability to earn a livelihood from music outside the realms of performing live.
The absence of a system that facilitates a legal route to being a curator and taste-makers for pop/rock music leads to an undermining of diversity in the musical mainstream. Furthermore, it leads to a concentration of power in the hands of a few conglomerate-based curators that together wield a disproportionate amount of influence in shaping public opinion as it applies to pop/rock music. Hopefully, the next wave of innovation in the music business revolves around breaking down the barriers that allow individual curators to legally showcase copyrighted music on their chosen platforms at scale.
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