Analysis

sonaBlast Records boss: ‘Copyright needs to be blown up and rethought’


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sonaBlast Records was set up by Gill Holland in 2002 in New York and is now based in Kentucky. Holland came from the film business, having worked in and around indie films since the 1990s, serving a stint at the French Film Office as well as working with legendary French Nouvelle Vague auteur Jean-Luc Godard.

Establishing the label (and eventually the publishing arm) was driven, he says, by necessity and out of frustration at the way the sync business worked and made it difficult – if not impossible – for smaller filmmakers to clear the rights to use music in their films.

Holland had previously dealt with a label on a soundtrack deal, but the cost of licensing music was, he says, “almost as costly as the production for the entire film” and that acts were making it unnecessarily difficult to have their music used. He felt creating a label that thought differently about sync was the way to go. Irish singer Mark Geary was an early signing and provided the template for how the company operated.

Holland cites the name of Godard’s production and distribution company Sonimage (a play on both “his image” and “sound image”) as an inspiration. “The last creative element in a movie is the music or score,” he says. “Godard’s company is called Sonimage – where he puts the word ‘sound’ in front of ‘image’ as he thinks it’s that important.”

His label was set up at a turbulent time in the record business – in that hinterland between the arrival of the original Napster and the launch of the iTunes store – when many felt that running a label was little more than an exercise in recklessness.

I always joked – even then, back in the ashes of Napster – that the label was really just marketing for the publishing company,” he says. “I thought people were just not going to pay for units of music due to technology and everything that was happening around that.”

Holland also says that he was happy to see the CD dissolve into irrelevance rather than trying desperately to shore it up.

“We were early to sign up to iTunes when everyone was telling us it would kill our physical sales,” he explains. “I told them that physical sales were a pain in the butt as you have to use a lot of toxic materials to create CDs and so on. I was happy to leave CDs behind. We might press up a couple of hundred CDs, but they are just for the artists to sell at their shows. Downloads are now starting to decrease – visibly; Spotify would appear to be picking up – visibly.”

Holland suggests that his long history in the movie and TV industries – plus his contacts there – gives his label a competitive advantage over others in the same space.

“For some people, the value add is touring or merchandise,” he argues. “The value add for us is that I know all the filmmakers as I have worked on over 100 movies. So I knew we would be good, no matter what.”

In an age of instant reporting and speedy payments in digital, Holland says the sync business is still moving at an embarrassingly slow speed – and that for small acts working and living hand to mouth, this is unworkable.

“I could be speaking to a filmmaker today and they are shooting a movie,” he says by way of illustration. “The movie is editing in the summer. It goes to Sundance in January 2018. It would be in theatres until 2019. And it won’t be on TV until 2020 and that is when the revenue comes in for the publishing. Then it’s 18 months after that – so 2022 – before you see any revenues from the performance [of the film].”

While Holland feels that copyright is hugely important, the frameworks around it are increasingly restrictive and sluggish, meaning opportunities are missed as deals take too long to be done.

I think copyright in America is going to be one of those things that will drastically change over the next 30-50 years,” he predicts, but adds that the DMCA is not something that can be tweaked here and there in order to become infallible.

“I don’t think you can just tinker with it,” he says. “If you want to build a car that does 400 miles to a gallon, you don’t tinker with an existing car – you blow it up and start anew. I feel like present copyright needs to be blown up and rethought. But I am not sure the studios are going to let that happen.”

sonaBlast Records

Holland is not so caught up by debates currently gripping the industry relating to the value gap. He sees platforms like YouTube as offering greater democratisation for new artists and this is much more preferable to the closed world and heavy rotation of a handful of acts that MTV represented even as recently as a decade and a half ago.

There is YouTube, which should pay more in terms of royalties as a lot of people get their music there, but it is a free marketing platform,” he says. “When we started the label, the only place to get a video screened was on MTV – which had ceased showing videos except for some late-night shows. Plus, it was a huge barrier to entry.”

Holland adds, “A lot of people complain, but I tell them not to. If your music is good, people can find it now. It’s the great ability to needle drop at any given time on any artist. That’s exciting. In terms of discovery, the world is your oyster. They are exciting times.”

While his acts have cumulative reached over 50m plays on Spotify and Pandora, Holland is unconvinced that streaming is the panacea for smaller acts – and hence why sync is such a focus for him.

“The huge labels with the huge artists get – I don’t know if it’s disproportionate – a big piece of the pie,” he says. “The smaller artists, in the old days, if you sold, like one of our acts, 25,000 copies of a CD at $10 a pop, that’s $250,000. Now that act is up to 10m streams on Spotify, but that’s nowhere near that [in terms of payments]. That’s under $50,000.”

For Holland, live and sync are the real generators or money for emerging acts and they have to see streaming as a loss-leading promotional effort rather than a financial destination in and of themselves.

You have to monetise the shows; you have to use Spotify and use YouTube and use Facebook to drive merchandise sales and ticket sales as well as licensing music to TV shows and films,” he argues. “Streaming is certainly not a money pit yet.”

Eamonn Forde

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