Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Music Industry Goliaths: will the real David please start slinging?

Surprise: Wolfy's owner Bob Wolf paints himself as David fighting Goliath in his dispute with ASCAP over licensing fees (article in the Tennessean, 1/31/05). And, surprise surprise, ASCAP responds by claiming to represent the little songwriter (median annual royalty income: under $5000) against Big Bad deadbeats like Wolf.

The truth, obscured by all this huffing and puffing, is more complicated. While ASCAP and the other performing rights societies perform many valuable services for songwriters at all levels, their bread and butter is collecting for people and corporations at the upper end of the income spectrum. Tellingly, the music publishers filing the complaint against Wolf are owned by Vivendi Universal (most recent quarterly revenue: $6.94 billion) and Sony ($1.4 billion*), as Goliathan a pair as you're likely to meet anywhere.

On the other hand, we songwriters on the lower end of the spectrum have no choice but to ally ourselves with giants if we are to have any hope of getting paid at all. And that is why Wolf should have a little more sympathy for fellow small-business-folks like Danny Flowers, writer of the song "Tulsa Time," which was mentioned in ASCAP's lawsuit, and which probably increased Wolfy's nightly beer sales by more than ASCAP's $3.25 fee all by itself. It's a safe bet that a reduction in that song's revenue stream is more likely to hurt Danny than the CEO of Vivendi.

Far be it from me to discourage anyone who wants to take aim at Goliath. But Wolf's slingshot is off-target.

[UPDATE: this was published as a "3-star" letter to the editor on 2/4/05--supplanting this one ("Opposing the war while supporting the warriors") from fellow pinko musician Jimmy Maddox as my current all-time favorite]

*Oops! That's profit. Fourth Quarter operating revenue for Sony was closer to $21 billion.

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