Brick By Brick: How Companies Are Chipping Away at Music's Big Data Problem
"I remember being in a session with a reputable producer and it was going really well and [he] was like, 'Hey, so I think I'm probably going to need to take 60 percent,'" remembers musician and Songspace co-founder/Director of Strategy Jesse Feister. "I was in the room with two other guys in the band and we were like, 'What the fuck is this guy about?' It put the whole session into just a weird place."
Sorting out the business side of things while in the midst of creation -- who's contributing to the song, who wrote what or how much, what percentage splits per writer are -- can not only get very awkward very quickly, it can also ruin the creative process entirely.
Awkward or not, the nitty-gritty details of writing and recording songs, and the metadata behind that work, are all a big part of one of the music industry's biggest headaches: namely, the insufficient songwriting and publishing data attached to the music that's delivered to distributors. This massive collection of blind spots make it difficult or downright impossible to locate those who deserve to be paid royalties for their work, leading to a slew of class action lawsuits against Spotify, Tidal, Rhapsody and other streaming services, and resulted in the NMPA brokering a $30 million settlement between Spotify and its music publishing constituents over unpaid royalties resulting in that lack of data.
Much of the conversation at this year's SXSW Music Conference and Festival this month focused on the macro solutions to this issue -- a global rights database, an open registration system based on "the blockchain” which would require minimum amounts of data to enter a song, an independent body with government oversight -- but Songspace, which has been around for about a year-and-a-half, is looking at the problem from a different angle in order to start producing a solution.
"Publishing companies, artists, managers... everybody in the music industry has the same problem, which is organizing all this content, and we're all using platforms that are not meant to manage music," Songspace co-founder/CEO Robert Clement, a former co-owner of American Songwriter magazine, told Billboard last week in an interview in Austin. "We [are] really focused on the creative workflows -- what is it that people need to do on an everyday basis?"
To that end, Songspace has created a centralized platform in which artists, producers and creators can manage their songs, lyrics, publishing splits, session files and co-writers all in one place, rather than involving third party apps, file-sharing web sites or emailing disparate bits of data to A&Rs, managers or labels. "The process of getting to distribution is extremely fragmented right now," Feister said last week in Austin at a panel titled "The Network Effect: Transparency in the Music Industry."
"It's an incredible amount of time wasted, and leads to bad data. What if it didn't have to happen across eight or nine different platforms?"
The way that Songspace is set up encourages songwriters to input this metadata by putting it all in one place, right in front of the user. Songs can be shared privately with other songwriters, producers, publishers or label reps within the system, keeping the data together and allowing others to work on the track simultaneously in multiple places (song data is compatible with blockchain). It's both a way to track the business information as early in the creative process as possible -- a clear, non-abstract way of getting around the awkwardness of bringing up money the studio -- and a useful tool for creators to have access to that data, which otherwise might be archived by his or her publisher or manager -- or not at all.
"The biggest pain point for anybody who works in publishing or songwriting or management is needing to keep track of the splits, or more importantly first, who is involved," Feister told Billboard. "The people who are involved in the music have no record of anything that happened unless they're extremely organized, and if they are, it's not connected to anybody else who's involved. There should be a way to do that. That's what we're doing."
Songspace just passed 100 clients, including Downtown Music Publishing, Big Deal Music, Notting Hill Music, Razor & Tie, Secret Road, Q Prime, Brett James' Cornman Music and a couple A&R teams at Sony Music, to name a few, and are looking to enter a new round of funding in the near future as its client roster continues to grow.
Of course, the company's model isn't designed to fix the industry's data malaise, which goes much deeper, but is one of many small fixes that, all together, are chipping away at the larger problems. The NMPA-brokered Spotify deal, hand-in-hand with the streamer's promise to build its own rights database, is helping push digital service providers to take on more responsibility for royalty payments placed in escrow due to insufficient data. Music Reports recently launched a rights administration platform with the goal of matching publishing metadata with songs within its Songdex codex to wipe out misinformation, while Kobalt's global collection society has put that company on the front lines as well.
"We want to use these workflow tools to add more efficiency to the industry and to connect more people," Clement said about Songspace's role. "And ultimately, to add more transparency and connect every creator and stakeholder out there. Our perspective is, when you try to solve really small problems, if you do that really well, it can lead to really big solutions."