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Songwriter Aloe Blacc has a plan to save the music industry

Aloe Blacc performs at IWC 'For The Love Of Cinema' Dinner And Filmmakers Award
Aloe Blacc performs at IWC 'For The Love Of Cinema' Dinner And Filmmakers Award

The music industry is experiencing growing pains that threaten to shake the very foundation of the way artists are paid. With album sales down, streaming up, and popular artists like Taylor Swift speaking out about the nuances of the business, the industry has to face some difficult realities about the way copyrights are assigned, the way they're enforced, and what they will look like in the future.

One of the most vocal leaders of this copyright reformation is singer and songwriter Aloe Blacc, whose hit song with Avicii, "Wake Me Up," was the number one most-streamed song on Pandora in 2013. He's also known for his hit single "I'm the Man."  I sat down with Blacc to discuss the problems he sees in the industry and what we can do to change them. Some of what we talked about is very industry specific. For a general overview of the issues at play, read this explainer.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kelsey McKinney: Why are we talking about streaming today?

Aloe Blacc: Happily. For me, it's a nice issue to talk about. It's about letting people know that as technology changes, perhaps the laws that were based on technology in the past should change as well.

Kelsey McKinney: You've said in several articles, including one in Wired, that the money you make from streaming is negligible. Can you speak about the distinction between the money that you make songwriting and the money that you make as a performer?

Aloe Blacc: The money I make as a songwriter comes from the publishing and the songwriting side of it. From what I understand about the copyright, songwriters are able to make money that is based on uses of the song — like a cover — so you get this statutory rate that's decided by the copyright officials.

And this rate comes from a legacy technology: mechanical pianos. That's why they call it the "mechanical royalty," but those pianos don't even exist anymore. If I create a song and I put it into the marketplace, it becomes published work. Because the rule that someone else made is that since I've made this public work, anyone else can cover it, and they are able to copy my song and release it and exploit it and make whatever money they want to make out of the sales (the master recording), but only account to me based on the mechanical royalty.

This doesn't exist in other industries. I think it's kind of weird. I couldn't do that to someone's movie. I couldn't take a Martin Scorsese movie and make my own version of it and exploit that in the marketplace for money without having to negotiate with the right's owners first about whether I can do it, how much I can make from it, and what I would have to split with them. I don't get to have that right for my content.

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Clear Channel Media And Entertainment Presents Aloe Blacc (Chelsea Lauren/Getty)

Kelsey McKinney: What distinction do you see between streaming and something like radio which has many of the same elements?

Aloe Blacc: When it comes to radio, they are on the hook to pay for uses of my song, performances of my song. Those rates are determined outside of my access. It is rates that are determined with membership organizations like the PROs [Publishing Rights Organizations], but ultimately that kind of rate has been transferred to the idea of music streaming.

I think those are different worlds, and I'll explain to you in one way in particular how that is so: when you listen to the radio, the music is not fixed to a visual. It's just audio. According to copyright [law], when music is synced to a video it falls under a synchronization license. Under that license, I get the right to negotiate the rate of my music when it is synchronized to a video. For example, a movie or a television show. Let's call that a static synchronization.

When it comes to Spotify or Pandora or any other streaming entity, I would call it a dynamic synchronization. Why? Because as my music is playing, there are advertisements for products that are generally being pitched to my demographic that I have no control over.

I have met with the companies and know how they operate. Those ads are guaranteed based on the analytics they have about the listenership. They aren't showing ads for Disney toys on my station; they're showing alcohol products, or vehicles, or clothing. And I'd call that a dynamic synchronization. And for that, I deserve to be paid for the synchronization of my music to a visual.

But the law's not catching up to the uses and abuses of technology and the people who are in many ways disrespecting my copyright.

Kelsey McKinney: Why is the respect of copyright laws so important for songwriters?

Aloe Blacc: As a performer, as the person singing a song, as the artist, it's not usually the guy who wrote the song. Frank Sinatra is famous for singing "New York, New York." He didn't write it. He made a lot of money from singing "New York, New York," probably more than the guys who wrote it. And the record label that has that master [copy] probably makes more than the guys who wrote it.

There is demand for performances by the person who is singing the song. But I argue that that demand wouldn't exist without a brilliant songwriter like Burt Bacharach. We all know, very well, Elton John. But not many people know of Bernie Taupin, who is the guy who wrote all of the lyrics [to John's most famous songs]. Why? Because he's not a performer. Elton John goes out and makes all the music performing these songs, but they would be just melodies without the beautiful lyrics of Bernie Taupin, who doesn't make that stage money.

I find myself in some ways with my audience, especially after the Wired piece, being criticized for speaking out about not making enough from [songwriting] when I do make money from [performances].

Before I had the opportunity to sing on television or have radio play my music, I was in an artist compound: five musicians in a house. A couple of them are still there struggling to make it. They are songwriters, performers, entertainers. They are beautiful and amazing craftsmen who probably will never see the kind of money they deserve for the kind of art they create, because the laws don't allow songwriters to negotiate what they deserve, what they want in a free market.

If I can get the laws to change, then I think the content will be valued properly based on demand and based on what the artist wants. If the artist wants to cannibalize his or her income by giving it away for free, than he or she should have the right to do so until it becomes a destination and people want it. Then they should be able to change the price.

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2014 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival - Day 1 (Jason Kempin/Getty)

Kelsey McKinney: There's a lot of implication that songwriters are the black sheep of the music community in terms of payment and appreciation, but we're kind of focusing on streaming. Do you think that everything needs reformation, or that streaming should be the focus right now?

Aloe Blacc: I think the most important thing, rather than nitpicking and itemizing, is that if we change the copyright law then all negotiations have to be reinstated. Everybody has to come back to the table, and we have to rediscuss what is the value, and they will have to reckon with the songwriter.

It wouldn't make any sense to just talk about streaming, or radio, or television. Every songwriter will have the opportunity to say what he or she wants for his or her copyright at that moment. There may be no standard. There may be no rubric, and the songwriter will live or die by their ability to negotiate. I think, personally, that's fair. Ultimately, that will come down to demand. If you're making something that's in demand, you get more money.

I don't see a problem with having a floor. If there are these existing rates right now, then we make them the floor and from there the sky is the limit.

Kelsey McKinney: So you don't make a distinction between non-interactive streaming like Pandora and interactive streaming like Spotify the way that entertainment lawyers do?

Aloe Blacc: I don't make a distinction, because they are both exploiting my copyright in a visual domain and they both should be paying synchronization fees. They probably wouldn't argue that, and if they wouldn't, I would tell them to turn off all visuals while my music is playing. Make the screen black. Then, you are actually operating without a synchronization. Otherwise, I know you are pitching commercials with my music.

Kelsey McKinney: Do you think that the consent decrees between ASCAP/BMI and the Department of Justice that are coming up soon could help the situation?

Aloe Blacc: I'm not extremely familiar with the consent decrees, but I think that the system itself is outdated. I'm not certain how quickly something can change. But why don't the record labels who control the master have to go to the rate court? Why does the creator of the intellectual property?

Just based on that alone, I'm calling it unfair, because it's an unbalanced attack on the songwriters. Being not fully informed about how exactly all of that works, I can already tell you its a system that needs reform. Rather than going to court, it should be the songwriters working with a distributor, and if it doesn't work out, sorry, you can't have my product. That's how it works for any other industry.

The concept of the consent decree was that people should have access to music and that the PROs shouldn't be able to restrict music from people. That's completely moot at this point with the internet. I can put my music on, and everyone in the world has access to it. It doesn't matter if I've given it to the streaming services. Should my audience want my music, it's available.

Kelsey McKinney: Why haven't you pulled your music from the streaming sites?

Aloe Blacc: I don't have control to pull my master, and I've already offered my license of my copyright to my record label. If any of my co-songwriters wish to pull their IP from the label, then they could try and pull the music from Spotify or Pandora.

The record labels haven't been extremely candid in this discussion either, but they bought into Spotify. When Spotify asked them for the content, they said, "We'll give you the content, but we also want a piece of your company. So whether you win or lose, we still will make money." Quite frankly, they were able to get that equity in the company using the value of artists like me. I don't get any of that equity, and should they go public, I don't get any of the stocks. All of that I think is a misuse because they don't own my copyright. They are merely licensing my copyright.

There are a lot of issues for me about the way the business is going. Artists and songwriters are not getting a fair shake.

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2014 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival - Weekend 1 - Day 1 (Tim Mosenfelder/Getty)

Kelsey McKinney: It seems like every level needs reformation, but I don't think anyone has a clear view of what their next step is.

Aloe Blacc: Yeah, I completely agree. I think for me, the clear next step is to offer songwriters complete and free open market of their copyright with no restrictions, and that will help settle the issues, because everybody will have to negotiate directly.

A sculptor, let's say, has the opportunity to choose where and when and how their art is consumed. If the sculptor makes their sculpture at Venice Beach, well, you have to be at Venice Beach to see it. And he could probably mask it so that it could only be seen from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. if he wanted.

If I wanted to do that for my music, I couldn't. There is no freedom for me to say, this song that I wrote about beautiful mornings can only be consumed at morning time from my website. I don't have that right, because anyone in the world can cover it and play it anytime they want, and once its available, radio and other forms of radio (like Pandora) have the right to play it, and I don't have the right to tell them not to.

I just think it should be more equitable. It should be fair. Even pharmaceutical companies get one year. They get a single year to exploit their patent with no competition before other companies can "cover" it. Give me a year. Give me one year to exploit my copyright, to make a living. A lot of artists, the majority of them, are one-hit wonders. Give them that one year to exploit it in full with no competition to diminish the value of their copyrights. Think about all the terrible covers of Beatles's songs you've heard.

If there were reform, if there were change, it would offer a lot of opportunity to the songwriters who are right now based on the past haven't had the right laws to protect them.

Kelsey McKinney: So let's say we pass all these copyright laws, and we give songwriters every option to make money off of their work. How do you stop a larger group, like a label or a PRO, from exploiting that right and taking that money away from them?

Aloe Blacc: Educating musicians is going to be a more difficult discussion in the future. None of my artist friends spend much time thinking about their contracts. A lot of them are just artists. All they want to do is create. There will be people who will exploit them and that's unfortunate. I hope that I can help in that educating. I would expect the PROs to help in that education because these are membership groups, these are our colleagues. I would expect them to come to our aide.

If we can get the laws fixed, then we can start working on the business people who will try and exploit us. Because we will have more power at least then we can yield a stronger hand in those negotiations.

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