YouTube, ASCAP to Share Data in First-Ever Voluntary Deal

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The YouTube logo photographed on Aug. 9, 2016.

ASCAP has a new plan to help its publishers and songwriters earn more money from YouTube: informing the video platform which of its members composed and published each of its songs within the vast sea of recordings and videos uploaded to the video streaming site.

In what is the performance rights group’s first-ever fully-negotiated, voluntary licensing deal with the decade-old video hub not prompted by a rate-court proceeding, ASCAP will combine its database of 10.5 million musical works with YouTube’s data exchange, a move that ASCAP’s CEO Elizabeth Matthews tells Billboard will result in bigger payouts. 

The multiyear deal, effective immediately, both “substantially increases the aggregate amount of revenue” that ASCAP will collect from YouTube, and potentially boosts revenue further with data that can help YouTube’s content ID system identify more of the works that ASCAP represents, she says. The deal is also retroactive, meaning ASCAP will be compensated for its works streamed on the site since YouTube started operating on a compulsory interim license with ASCAP in 2013 -- and gives the society more leverage going forward.

“Either you have a seat at the table or you get eaten for lunch,” Matthews told Billboard in an email.

While providing precise copyright ownership data to YouTube might sound like a basic precaution, performance rights groups have traditionally issued blanket licenses to venues, TV networks, radio stations and streaming services instead, using their own calculations to divvy up the revenue to their members rather than basing payouts on the exact number of times licensees played each song.

While that lack of transparency and precision has bred some frustration among songwriters in the past, YouTube’s global head of music Lyor Cohen said in a statement that it was “great to see ASCAP take a progressive approach towards the long-term financial success of its members” as YouTube delivers more advertising and subscription revenue to the music industry.

“YouTube is dedicated to ensuring artists, publishers and songwriters are fairly compensated,” Cohen said.

To be sure, ASCAP and its main counterpart BMI still don’t have a choice about whether to license their music to YouTube or other licensees -- they are required to grant interim licenses under the terms of their decades-old consent decrees with the Justice Department if they can’t immediately come to voluntary licensing agreements. ASCAP and BMI have been lobbying lawmakers in Washington to reform these consent decrees so that they can seek market rates for their music instead.

Other societies, such as Global Music Rights, have more freedom because they aren’t governed by consent decrees. GMR, founded three years ago by music manager Irving Azoff, does not currently license its works to YouTube because the two companies haven’t been able to agree on a price.

“GMR is always willing to negotiate with any company who will pay songwriters a fair and equitable rate,” Azoff told Billboard in an email. "GMR is not licensed with YouTube because YouTube is not in that category."

ASCAP’s deal with YouTube is just one of several moves the group has made recently to become more transparent and to better link the industry’s sound recordings with their musical compositions. ASCAP made public its own data on its repertory and its share of performance rights in 2015. ASCAP and YouTube had been in licensing talks since the fall, after ASCAP determined through a study that it could effectively synthesize its data-matching processes with YouTube’s.

BMI has a direct license with YouTube and is currently discussing a new long-term agreement. BMI spokeswoman Liz Fischer said that YouTube has been “a good partner.”