Royalty collection platform Songtrust enjoyed a record-setting year in 2019, as collections for its songwriter, producer and other rightsholder clients grew by nearly 250% year-on-year.
The company, which is part of the Downtown Music Holdings group, now administers the musical works of more than 300,000 clients, and is collecting royalties from more than 150 countries, including more than 50 direct agreements with collecting societies.
According to President, Molly Neuman, there have been three pillars to Songtrust’s growth so far: education, open access, and the rapid globalisation of the music industry. She’s overseen the company’s efforts around all three since joining Songtrust in December 2017 from her previous position as head of music at crowdfunding firm, Kickstarter.
Neuman’s career has also included executive roles at US indie body A2IM, Rhapsody and eMusic; co-owning label Lookout Records and management company Indivision; and before that played in punk bands, including Bratmobile.
This early experience has influenced her thoughts on education for artists and songwriters now. “My personal philosophy – it must be the punk in me! – is ‘you can do it yourself’. You just need to have access to the information. If you know how things work, you might be able to do it yourself, and do it well,” she says.
For Songtrust, that information was initially delivered to clients in blog posts and free music publishing guides, before extending into workshops and webinars.
“Music publishing has traditionally been confusing. You would rely on your CMO, your PRO [collecting society] but you would still have quite a bit of work, perhaps, to supplement the full picture,” says Neuman. “Our thinking has been if you have the access, you can make informed decisions, rather than keeping yourself at arm’s length of publishing because you think you won’t understand it.”
Much of Songtrust’s focus on open education is around what she calls the “practical fundamentals” of publishing, including setting down the splits and agreements at the earliest possible stage, and ensuring works are thoroughly registered.
“Really, that’s the thing that we’ve been trying to explain, and in doing so, elevate our expertise in understanding the complexities of individuals when we’re building technology to scale on top of all this,” says Neuman.
The webinars element of Songtrust’s educational program sees hundreds of attendees in each webinar, and has become even more important during the current period of coronavirus-driven lockdowns and social distancing. The company has been doing remote-learning for two years, but has seen registrations and audiences spike significantly since the pandemic began. April’s webinar about defining pay sources in music publishing is currently on track for the highest number of registrants ever.
“Our sales team were already doing weekly or bi-weekly sessions on how to onboard your catalogue and make sure everything is properly put in, so that we could do our real work, which is registering them globally. So a lot of that has already been scaled,” she says.
“Now it’s really about where do we refocus those efforts and how do we present them more internationally, as we plan for whatever the future looks like? But it all comes down to our belief that better informed consumers [clients] making better choices makes us have to do our work better.”
Recent weeks have seen plenty of headlines around relief efforts targeted at songwriters, performers, and other music industry professionals and companies. As those roll out, Neuman thinks there may also be scope for continued discussions about improving the industry’s very fabric, to ensure that creators are getting paid and sustaining their careers.
“Even before this, there was a commitment to improving the industry’s infrastructure, although what that looks like in practice is still being talked about. There’s a lot of appetite for it, even though now everybody has this different issue that we have to prioritise, which is to make sure we are weathering this challenging time appropriately,” she says.
“There’s been this narrative of success that we’ve all been celebrating over the last three years: the growth of streaming, the growth of revenue, all of the things that have been so positive. Now to have this body blow to the industry, the most important thing is that we effectively navigate this time, as an industry. Certainly Songtrust is committed to being a good actor in that regard as well.”
The second pillar for Songtrust is open access: the fact that any songwriter can register with the company and allow it to collect their global royalties, rather than requiring a publishing deal. The company sees this as an equivalent in the publishing landscape to what independent digital distributors did for artists: enabling them to release music without a label deal.
Neuman sets this within the longer-term history of publishing, where new revenue streams have often triggered changes for publishers. In her case, she saw it when musicians signed to her label in the 1990s started to attract publishers’ attention because their music was being used in skateboarding videos.
“The publishers could widen the scope of who they would do deals for. They knew there was more security: they could get X amount of sync licences. The math worked!” she says.
Sync may still be something that works mainly for the middle-to-upper strata of creators, rather than the longer tail. However, Neuman sees streaming as the key change on that front, and the one which made an open-access model like Songtrust’s desirable.
“Streaming globally creates all of these royalties in this pipeline of micro-pennies that, in aggregate, are a significant amount of money,” she says. “That has been the opportunity for Songtrust to grow, and to represent our clients. If there are earnings in a particular region, we want to identify and collect those royalties for them.”
That’s where those direct agreements with collecting societies come in. Neuman stresses that Songtrust strives to be a “good partner” for PROs, including understanding the challenges that they face dealing with the huge volume of streams and payments.
Still, Neuman is very clear in her belief that Songtrust has a role to play alongside those societies. “The truth is that there are many more people generating publishing royalties now than in the past, and there has to be some mechanisms to get them paid directly,” she says. “It’s happening in the recordings side of the business, so we [publishing] have to catch up.”
The third pillar, globalisation, is a big influence on Songtrust’s current business development plans. That includes exploring markets where even if Songtrust isn’t currently collecting significant royalties, musicians from that country may be due income from markets like the US.
“It’s about how do we support those creators who are making works in that territory, and helping them collect what they’re earning in the US?” she explains.
As new streaming services emerge, Songtrust will look to sign agreements – sometimes working with a licensing hub like ICE in Europe – and sometimes dealing directly. “We’re always aiming to have the most straightforward collection process,” says Neuman. “There’s a certain amount of truth to the idea that where there’s scale, there’s efficiency. So wherever we can, we tap into those things at our discretion.”
The current lockdown and associated freezes of international travel is, understandably, putting a dampener on some of the ways Songtrust and other companies forge new business relationships around the world: less hopping on planes and more video-conferencing.
“Nobody anticipated what we’re all dealing with right now. Luckily, both Songtrust and Downtown’s portfolio of companies were already in a place where transitioning to remote work, while not without its challenges, was relatively straight forward. Next time, the publishing world can’t not be prepared for another disruption that will happen at some point,” she says.
“We expect to emerge as strong a company as we were prior to this, but we don’t know when we’ll back at the office or back to ‘normal’. We don’t know what normal is yet! We have to anticipate there being changes,” she adds, referring to the industry in general, rather than just Songtrust’s business specifically.
“Are we going to have all of this global travel, or will we maintain this virtual layer that seems to be really effective? There are so many open questions. But our team is a good size: it’s not too big, and there’s a lot of work. We’re hoping to maintain that efficiency, while continuing to have new aspirations.”
This interview was originally published in the Music Ally Q1 2020 Report, which is part of our subscription research service. You can sign up for a free trial subscription here. Songtrust is a partner for Music Ally’s independent labels subscription.
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