The biggest problem with music

If you had to pick a single pain in the ass for the Rethink Music conference to solve, here’s the one that would make the greatest impact
By CARLY CARIOLI  |  April 23, 2012

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If you want to buy a song, chances are you'll end up at a one-stop shop like iTunes or Amazon — storefronts with set prices, clear rules, and instantaneous delivery. But if you want to license a song for use in a commercial, TV show, or video game, you're more or less on your own. When the second annual Rethink Music conference convenes this weekend in Boston, Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic assistant director Chris Bavitz will be moderating a panel about a problem that many artists and managers don't even know they have — and suggesting, as a solution, one of the least sexy topics in popular music.

The problem is a good one: there are suddenly lots of new customers, from tiny production companies to giants like YouTube, with money to spend on licensing songs — and yet there's no central repository, no iTunes, as it were, for finding and paying the thousands upon thousands of songwriters, performers, and publishers who hold rights to those tracks. The solution may be an old-fashioned database — one that will be impossible to create without getting competing labels, artists, and managers on the same page. Since those folks don't historically play nice together, the bad news is that the degree of difficulty for creating a universal rights registry is high. The better news is that if someone succeeds, there could be a new and sustainable revenue model that's good for artists, good for innovators, and good for fans.

Bavitz, previously a senior director of legal affairs at EMI, notes that the problem has its roots in the labyrinthine legal complexity of copyright laws. Someone seeking to license a song — whether they're looking to put it in a Hollywood blockbuster or a Funny or Die clip — has to deal with numerous stakeholders. The artist has to say yes, but that's just the beginning: you need to pay a royalty to the person who wrote the song, and a separate royalty to the people who performed the song. Today, artists and their managers are cutting deals with labels that make it easier to bundle those licenses into one-shot transactions. But artists and managers likely don't realize how many people are trying to find them — and failing.

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