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Lack of music publishing knowledge robbing Indian artists of royalties

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Music publishing has been largely unexplored in India. Artists and music labels turned a blind eye to this critical aspect of the music business for a long time.

During its teething period, the music industry was oblivious to publishing, essentially due to a lack of knowledge about this aspect of the business. Film producers and artists would sign all rights in the recordings to the music label. This was because the only music business entities around were the labels. Even if someone wanted to look at a separate publisher, there was no such option.

From the artists’ perspective, they wanted the album to be released and promoted. It was and is still very rare for artists to ask questions about the clauses of a contract or negotiate royalty rates. The artists are eager to get the record out. They get into contracts without reading or taking legal advice prior to signing them. Upcoming artists especially would dare not try a negotiation for fear of losing the deal. Even established artists over the years have not bothered about the receipt of royalty. Since they assumed that it would not be paid. Even if it was, the amount would be so little that it did not warrant bothering about.

The rise of music publishing business in India

After the digital business evolved in India, the physical business model collapsed dramatically. People started to explore new avenues of revenue generation. The first stream of revenue in the digital business was the ‘ringtone’. This is a music publishing right and not a sound recording one. Once the digital business settled with ‘ringtones’ and ‘ring-back’ tones, the question everyone asked was: What are the relevant rights for this and who has them?

“Once numbers started appearing in the media about the amount of revenue ring-back tones were generating (whether accurate or inflated), the creative fraternity sat up. Composers and authors especially were agitated as they were just paid a one-time fee by the producer. They had no share of royalty in the digital business. This is when the whole understanding of rights started,” explained Atul Churamani, Founder/Managing Director Turnkey Music and Publishing Pvt. Ltd.

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So it has been only in the last 10-15 years that people connected with the music industry have started becoming aware of rights. This is true not just of artists, composers and authors but even digital platforms that need to license the appropriate rights and pay corresponding royalties. Today an artist has become aware about what he signs with a label. He knows that he is handing over copyrights in his composition, lyrics and sound recording. It is a good thing. Even if artists at the moment are mostly not in a position to negotiate the terms of their contracts.

The curious case of YouTube views

What artists want is to be featured on the label’s YouTube channel. Most artists who sign with big labels are willing to spend money on their own music videos. The aim is to be featured on these channels that have several million subscribers, as it helps them get ‘out there’ which would be very difficult on their own. The assumption is that their videos will get millions of views, which in turn will help them get concerts, which is where the real money is today. Plus you have brands now sitting and watching YouTube numbers and the general feeling is that a large subscriber base on an artist’s channel and multi-million views on videos almost guarantee a brand endorsement deal.

“So in all this, the publishing rights in the compositions and lyrics are the last thing on an artist’s mind. Most do not even become members of the Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS) so forego any revenue they would be entitled to from the society. We have conducted workshops for young musicians explaining their music publishing rights and why they should sign up with the society and a publisher. Thankfully, a lot of them are now signing up with IPRS but once they become members, they do not register their works so that area now needs attending to. “Even if artists retain their music publishing rights, they would not be able to exploit it. They have to hand the rights over to a business entity called the ‘publisher’. ” quipped Atul.

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There is a dearth of music publishers in the industry. Music publishing is not a billion rupee market so it is not going to turn the fortunes of anyone. Even if the artist has signed with a publisher, at times, they give the rights of their new song to the labels or a film producer. It is understandable as it helps them get publicity but as a publisher, you have to be ready to make such exceptions.

Securing your rights

Though artists believe there is no value in publishing, the newer lot are concerned about protecting their music and ensuring it is not ‘stolen’, which is a contradiction in terms! Having a music publisher does help in this case. The publisher registers the copyright in the composition and lyrics with the appropriate societies, so there is ready proof of the creators of a song. And anyway this is the basis of the publishing business, after which the synchronisation right opportunities come in, to try and generate more royalties for the songwriters.

“The composition and the lyrics are publishing copyrights. Once you sign with a publisher your rights are fairly protected and is difficult for anybody to copy your music. The trick is to do it immediately on release. Anyone copying a tune can register it only after the original songwriters have done so. Yet, registration with a copyright society may not be clinching evidence in a court of law. It is always safer to register all three works with the Registrar of Copyrights, which is a government agency. The composition, lyrics and sound recording can all be registered online. The website is www.copyright.gov.in and the fee is Rs. 500/- per work registered. So for all copyrights of a song, the fee is Rs. 1,500. Funnily, despite the paranoia of their music being stolen, artists loathe to register. Or pay a lawyer or agent to do it for them,” laughed Atul.

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The emergence of decade long deals

Film producers have also realised the value in ownership of copyright. Lot of them now do not assign the music rights to a label but opt for a 10-year license. They still do take an upfront fee (or minimum guarantee as it is popularly called) for the license. The producers also look for a share of royalty on earnings of the music label. At the end of the tenure, the rights revert to them and they look to ‘sell’ that content again and get another minimum guarantee.

“All this being the nature of the business, people seeking and granting licenses need to be well versed with copyright and the business of music. Especially in determining the value of a piece of music, which is very tough to do. The problem is that the music business is not seen as a career that needs training for executives. For some reason it is felt that a fresher can learn on the job. There is a dire need for a good music business school,” asserted Atul.

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