Songwriters, Publishers’ Pay Day From Streaming Royalty


Publishers should get ready to welcome a royalty windfall now that the Copyright Royalty Board has printed its Phonorecord III final determination in the Federal Register — the last step to make the new rate structure official, concluding a more-than-four-year royalty row between publishers and streaming services.

The question is, how much that bonus will be.

While various industry estimates are all over the place with some even reaching another $400 million, by Billboard estimates, the just announced determined rates — finalized eight months after the 2017-2022 term expired — could yield up to another $250 million in underpaid mechanical royalties flowing from digital services to publishers and songwriters.

Now, digital services like Spotify, Amazon Music, YouTube and Pandora have six months to review and adjust past payments made for U.S. mechanicals to the new rates. Doing that will take a complicated assessment of past payments and applying them under the new finalized structure.

The ruling increases U.S. mechanical royalties each year during the five-year period using a multi-pronged formula based on choosing between either the royalties calculated using a “headline rate” tied to a percentage of the streaming service’s total revenue; or another pool that is calculated by using the lesser of either a percentage of total content cost — i.e. what’s paid to labels — or 80 cents per subscriber. Under the new finalized determination — which for the percentage of service revenue prong, is the same as the initial determination for the 2018-2022 term — the headline rate increased from 11.4% of service revenue in 2018 to 12.3% in 2019 to 13.3% in 2020 to 14.2% in 2021 and to 15.1% in 2022.

From there, performance royalties that are negotiated with and paid out to rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI are subtracted from the all-in pool, leaving just the mechanicals behind. The mechanicals are then measured against a 50-cents-per-subscriber floor, and whichever is bigger becomes the final mechanical royalty pool paid out to publishers and songwriters.

Until an appeal of the initial CRB rate determination initiated by independent songwriter George Johnson and joined by most of the big digital services sent it back to the CRB in July 2020, most of the streamers had been paying royalties under the high escalating rates from the initial Phonorecords III determination. But with the remand, in the fall of 2020, most services reverted to paying music publishing royalties using Phonorecords II rates from 2013-2017 while the appeal was sorted out. As an example, looking at just 2020 rates, that meant digital services abandoned the royalty structure that paid 13.3% of service revenue or 24.1% of total content cost and switched back to using the prior headline rate of 10.5% of service revenue and 21% of total content cost.

(This article uses rates and math associated with what’s known as the stand-alone portable streaming model — i.e., a single paid subscription — because it’s the dominant model that produces the most revenue in the U.S. marketplace. The rate formula has different percentages and parameters for other models like bundled, ad-supported, family or student tiers.)

Under the CRB judges’ final determination published in the Federal Register, the Phonorecords III royalty calculation keeps the escalating rate structures for on-demand streaming for the percentage of revenue prong in the formula but abandons an escalating rate structure for the cost-of-content prong. So, in the case of a single paid subscriber, that prong will apply 21% of total content costs to build an all-in pool to cover both mechanical and performance royalties, instead of the previously used — from the initial 2018-2022 determination announced in 2019 — annual escalating rates that in 2022 would have culminated at 26.1% of total content costs. That means in months where the total content cost became the all-in prong, the streaming service most likely overpaid publishers under the new rate structure.

In addition to eliminating an escalating rate structure for that prong, the CRB judges reapplied a ceiling for the total content bucket limiting what digital services would have to pay publishers. The initial 2018-2022 determination took out the ceiling mechanism, which would have meant that every time labels negotiated a higher rate, the music publishers and songwriters would also automatically benefit by a higher rate. Now, services reviewing their previous payments will need to measure the total cost of content bucket against the 80-cents-per-subscriber ceiling. Whichever of those two buckets is lower is then measured against the headline bucket and, this time, whichever is larger is chosen as the all-in bucket.

Reinstating the ceiling and jettisoning the escalating rate structure for the total content all-in pool could mean publishers were actually overpaid tens of millions of dollars for the 2018-2020 years, Billboard estimates based on Mechanical Licensing Collective and Harry Fox Agency royalty calculations data obtained from publishing sources. That amount, however, will be more than offset by the hundreds of millions of dollars in additional payouts that digital services will have to make for 2021 and 2022.

Billboard doesn’t have all the data necessary to calculate mechanical revenue on a month-by-month basis for each digital service, but looking at overall payments and reports to the Mechanical Licensing Collective can provide a simplified ballpark estimate on how much is owed to publishers and songwriters over the Phonorecords III five-year period.

First, let’s look at the first three years when it’s likely that services overpaid publishers and songwriters because they used the since-abandoned initial determination’s escalating percentages for the total content pool when calculating royalties. With Spotify, for example, according to data obtained by Billboard for the streamer’s Premium Individual tier, the headline rate royalty bucket won out most of the time for two of those years — 2019 and 2020 — to become the all-in bucket. Since the headline bucket rates are the same before and after the remand, it’s likely there were relatively minimal overpayments during that period. In 2018, however, Spotify’s total cost of content bucket appears to have won out all year — and that was at a higher rate of 22%, not the remanded 21%, and without a ceiling. So, in that year alone, Spotify likely overpaid by as much as $10 million on that tier alone, Billboard estimates, and is due to receive that money back from publishers and songwriters.

Based on that, and not knowing what kind of label licensing deals all digital services have, Billboard calculates — and some industry financial sources agree — that as much as $50 million in over-payments might have been paid by the digital services to publishers and songwriters overall during the 2018 through October 2020 period.

For that period, any overpayments will mostly be sorted out directly between the digital services and the publishers because the Mechanical Licensing Collective — created following the Music Modernization Act was signed in 2018 — hadn’t begun operating yet. Though, the organization will need to be involved in in recalibrating royalty payments that came from unmatched and unpaid royalties, which digital services turned over for those years at the MLC’s inception.

For 2021 and 2022, however, once the MLC began operating, the organization will be responsible for managing any royalty adjustments, once the new data and additional funding is received from the digital services.

In 2021, U.S. digital services reported $9.76 billion in estimated service revenue to the MLC, while the all-in publishing revenue totaled $1.31 billion — or 13.38% of service revenue — according to Billboard estimates based on MLC data obtained by Billboard. Taking a simplified across-the-board approach applying that year’s 14.1% headline rate against the total revenue of $9.76 billion would deliver nearly $1.39 billion in mechanical royalties — a $80 million bonus to publishers and songwriters.

For 2022, the payouts will likely be even greater. That year, digital services reported $10.78 billion in service revenue to the MLC and paid out a total of $1.45 billion in mechanical and performance royalties — or 13.5% of total revenue. Applying the 15.1% headline rate for that year produces about $1.63 billion in all-in publishing revenue — making for an extra $175.1 million in mechanical royalties.

Combined, 2021 and 2022 could yield an additional $255 million in mechanical royalties, by Billboard‘s best estimates. Depending on how much services can claw back from overpayments made during 2018 through October 2020, Billboard estimates publishers and songwriters will receive a windfall of $200 million to $250 million.

Once those payments are settled, it will be up to publishers to figure out payments to their songwriters under the new rate structure.

Beyond the windfall expected due to adjustments for over payments in 2018-2020 and the much larger underpayments in 2021-2022, Billboard estimates that the MLC holds an additional $350 million or so in unmatched or unclaimed royalties. In March of this year, the MLC reported to Billboard that it had paid out over $200 million of the $427 million pool in mechanical royalties it was handed from the years prior to when it began operating on Jan. 1, 2021. Sources say that since then, the prior 2021 unclaimed and unmatched pool has been further reduced with a total of almost $300 million now paid out. That leaves around $130 million in unclaimed royalties.

But what about 2021 and 2022? Since the MLC began, it has been matching about 90% of royalties from recordings to songs. In addition to the remaining 10% of songs that are not yet matched to recordings, there are songs building up the unpaid royalties pool because their credit claims do not add up to 100%. If a portion of a song’s credits are not claimed, that portion of the song’s royalties goes into the unclaimed and unmatched pool. Consequently, the overall payout rate the MLC is making nowadays comes out to about 84% of mechanical royalties received from digital services, according to sources, which is a considerable improvement compared to the 68–72% digital services matched and paid prior to the MLC’s launch.

In 2021, digital services paid the MLC about $675 million in mechanical royalties, Billboard estimates, and in 2022, they paid about $740 million. If 16% of the royalties for those two years are unmatched or unclaimed, that would make for another $225 million. And when 2018-2020 is added in, the MLC has a little more than $355 million in unmatched or unclaimed royalties still to be doled out to publishers and songwriters.

In addition to the publishing royalties still held by the MLC, Billboard estimates the finalized CRB rate determination will result in $50 million in overpayments to publishers for the 2018-2020 period and about $250 million in underpayments for 2021-2022. Within those totals, some of those adjustments will impact the $350 million or so unmatched and unclaimed royalties still held by the MLC.

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