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Metadata Matters, Part 3: Payments, Copyright & Legal Matters (Byta & MusicBrainz)

Metadata Matters, Part 3: Payments, Copyright & Legal Matters (Byta & MusicBrainz)

In our final article in our ‘Metadata Matters’ article series, we’ll touch on why music licensing, copyright protection and artist payouts are all significantly aided by good metadata in the current climate of the music industry.

The role of metadata in music licensing and copyright protection

Music licensing is one of the more complex aspects of working with music in a professional context. First off, there are several copyrights that apply to a piece of music: A copyright for the work (a composition), a copyright for lyrics (if there are any), a copyright for live reproduction and a copyright for distribution of music, just to name some. To even define what music distribution is makes laypeople’s heads spin – all of this is very intricate and far from transparent.

Second, what if someone desires to license music for a project, or if you see that someone’s copyright has been violated? How do you find the copyright holder? Many music services provide minimal information for a track’s copyright. If the service tells you that a track is copyrighted by Universal Music, what does that mean? MusicBrainz tracks literally hundreds of labels that could be considered Universal Music, many of them specific to a given country. How can you know which of these should be contacted in order to license a piece of music or report a copyright infringement?

The traditional answer is to hire an entertainment lawyer, who are often rather quite expensive. These lawyers have contacts at labels and can find the right people much faster than you could. But what if a project doesn’t have a budget for a lawyer? Often projects need to change their expectations and not license a famous track, and instead find something less well known with a similar feeling, since licensing major label content is often quite expensive. But once they find a good match (which could be you!), how do they find the owner? And if you’re trying to report a copyright infringement violation, you’re certainly not going to pay an expensive lawyer to do so!

For when it is not reasonable to use an entertainment lawyer, people will need to turn to the internet to help locate copyright owners. Sites like MusicBrainz index music and works to keep track of which label or artist released the music. This allows people to look up a given recording in MusicBrainz and then find out which label originally released it. However, if you find the original release label, your search may not be over yet – copyrights can be sold from labels to other labels, collectives or private individuals. The first question to a label should always be: Do you own the copyright to this piece of music? And if the answer is no, ask them who does own it now, or at least to whom the copyright was sold to. Then you need to contact the next label and start the process over again.

If this process seems unnecessarily complex, we agree! This is why organizations exist that have secured licenses to music, which can be contacted about licenses and/or copyright issues. But, how do these organizations find music to license? The internet – where else? Which is why music metadata matters and should be indexed in public repositories like MusicBrainz.

How does metadata help artists to get paid correctly and efficiently?

As we mentioned in article 1, there are many bands with duplicate names, including some 50 bands called Void. Being able to identify and contact/pay the correct artist presents a significant challenge and this is why unique identifiers are quite important to the process of paying artists.

Sadly, the music industry has never created a single database that contains all of this data. There have been attempts in past years to solve this problem, but they have all failed, while wasting large amounts of money (see the Global Repertoire Database failure).

The industry also has the concept of an ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) and an ISWC (International Standard Work Code), which are intended to uniquely identify a recording and work, respectively. However, both of these codes are hamstrung by the fact that a centralized database of these codes does not exist, or is incomplete, or has limited if any public access.. When someone sends you an ISRC or an ISWC, there isn’t an authoritative database to check to which recording/work this code belongs.

The state of paying artists in the industry is complex, opaque and costly. The best course of action for an artist is to ensure that as much data as possible is available to sites like MusicBrainz and Discogs, which are used by the industry to help find artists.

Until the industry creates and starts using a better database, it is difficult and far from efficient for artists to get paid, so making sure your data is in a publicly accessible database is the best way for an artist to be discoverable today.

The impact of metadata on the music industry’s supply chain and distribution channels

Today there are dozens of companies on the internet offering music services to artists, fans and businesses. A lot of these companies receive poor or incomplete metadata along with the music or music related data they receive. What should a company do, if they played a music track 15,000 times and now must pay that artist, but only know that the artist is Void?? That artist doesn’t get paid, plain and simple.

Today these companies spend a lot of money trying to match metadata from one source to another – this is a frightfully wasteful and error prone process that is done over and over again in the various music companies on the net and requires a large amount of resources that could be used in better ways, such as paying artists or building better features for fans.

The future of metadata in the music industry, including potential developments in technology and industry practices

The music industry today has no motivation to fix any of the current problems, because of their stranglehold on companies that wish to use their content. Happy to receive boatloads of money from services such as Spotify and YouTube, they comfortably rest on the mess they have created, because it serves them very well, even if it doesn’t serve most artists. Fixing these problems would be costly and cut into their profits, leaving them with zero motivation to change anything that would improve the quality of life of the artists.

The ideal solution would be to adopt an open standard for identifying music and artists using unique identifiers and giving everyone free access to them. A new non-profit organization could take advantage of the existing open databases and add a copyright ownership registry on top of this open data. The non-profit would then need to be able to resolve conflicting claims between copyright holders, which is a critical and rather costly task.

However, with the industries’ lack of motivation and their track record of torpedoing any initiatives that might improve the current mess, this is simply not going to happen. Until the industry is compelled to act, likely by governments, the best we can do is make music metadata available in the public databases and hope for the best!

This article is the third instalment of a 3-part series, Metadata Matters, brought to you by Byta and MusicBrainz. Read Part 1 and Part 2 by clicking here!