Around ten years ago, Achille Forler was a music producer standing apart from the rest of the industry. Forler, born in France, worked as an attaché at the French Embassy in India between 1990 and 1994 overseeing radio, television, cinema and music.
But in 1995, he quit and set up shop as a music publisher, going down the road that would set him against traditional record labels in a fight about copyright royalties. When Parliament was discussing amendments to India’s Copyright Act, Forler was there. “I was the only publisher who testified in the joint parliamentary committee,” remembers Forler. The result were two amendments that heavily impacted music publishing in India.
Now, Forler seeks another change – to make music licensing accessible with SyncMama which launched earlier this year. Affiliated with Forler’s Silk Road Communications label, SyncMama caters to a wide range of consumers. This includes individual end-users who need original music, but cannot afford large label’s hefty fees. With a subscription model that starts at Rs 450 per month, SyncMama’s library of music is easily accessible to all content creators, from social media influencers to video journalists and documentary filmmakers. If their work is successful, they must share royalties with SyncMama, which in turn will pay artistes a share.
Publishers need artists to have rights to their work if they want to run a viable business. Composers would tell Forler that a producer or label owned all the rights to the music. “I needed clients, so I started to become militant,” he says recounting his court cases including one for mechanical rights or the right to reproduce music on physical devices; and another involving the distribution of Backstreet Boys’ music. “Everyone in the industry knows that I have been pushing for amendments to the copyright laws,” he says. When the Indian government began to consider critical amendments to India’s copyright act in the early 2000s, naturally Forler was there.
The Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012 has resulted in huge payouts. One major composer who used to be an advisor to the board of the Indian Performing Rights Society, used to earn royalties of Rs 8 lakh each year. In the last quarter of 2021, the same composer made Rs 1.2 crore under the same system.
The amendments were twofold. The first said that a lyricist or composer can give copyrights to publishers, but they cannot sign away their right to royalty. The company that licenses it must share royalties on a 50-50 basis. “The amendment acknowledged that [singers and composers] do not have equal bargaining power,” says Forler. “Without lyricists and composers, you have no music.”
The second amendment was just as critical. In the absence of digital accounting, publishers did not have to share royalties. The amendment placed the IPRS at the centre of the music industry. Large producers pay an annual lump sum to the society for a blanket license. The society has the cue sheets of all music registered with it and can then distribute royalties to artistes who are also registered with them.
“Lyricists and composers can now view the music industry as a viable profession,” says Forler. “They know that they will keep getting royalties and that if they create anything of value, it will remain an investment and asset to them, their children and their children’s children.”
Back to the basics
When it comes to music licensing, one system is negotiated for a single song at a time. The other is a blanket license, for instance, when a producer pays about Rs 30 lakh for 30 hours of music, to a music label. This pricing structure is beyond the reach of individual creators.
Today, there are a significant number of players now offering royalty-free music, but they do not register their work with the IPRS. From 2013-14, when they first began to emerge and cater to individual content creators, these companies now supply content to major television channels, because they offer music at lower rates. This means that traditional labels are losing out on market share. However, they too pay musicians one time only and keep profits after that.
“We are going back to the fundamentals of the copyright system,” Forler explains. “Royalty must be proportional to the usage.” Earlier, copyright owners made money at the licensing stage. SyncMama is different. “We don’t know if your film or serial will be a failure. If I charge Rs 1 lakh and the video gets 400 million views, that is a fair charge. But if I charge Rs 1 lakh and the video flops, you will have paid too much. This is the balance between the two.”