As far as artists are concerned, Cindy Oliver has one of the most vital jobs in the industry: She pays them. And in a business dominated by streaming, that’s far more complex than it used to be.
“Years ago, you had relatively brief agreements that told you the royalty rates you needed to pay on physical products,” says Oliver, sitting in her office at Universal Music Group’s Woodland Hills facility, in Los Angeles, which holds most of her 300-member team. “But that has become much more complicated.”
That’s a typical understatement from Oliver, a 25-year UMG veteran who loves Southern rock and speaks with the precision of someone accustomed to dealing with details. Every month, UMG receives over 1,500 digital sales files from more than 200 partners — all of which contain information that needs to be aggregated, accounted for and converted into the relevant currency. In some ways, that’s the easy part. Oliver’s department also handles audits (both UMG’s audits of its distribution partners and artists’ audits of their labels); works with business affairs to monitor usage of UMG’s recordings on online platforms; runs the company’s growing operation to collect revenue from the use of those recordings on radio around the world; and helps claim and monetize videos on YouTube.
“This is about finding and collecting every fraction of a penny made from every use of our intellectual property across every platform in every territory around the world — and doing it more efficiently so more can be paid through to our artists,” says Oliver, who was promoted to her current position last September. “We put together a road map on this several years ago and we’ve been working against it ever since.”
Earlier in July, her team finalized the first step of an upgrade for the company’s worldwide royalty-accounting infrastructure that was two years in the making. Before the end of 2019, Oliver’s team will create the capability for UMG to account to artists on a monthly basis. Oliver also helps acts and label partners keep up: “We still have people who ask for the source data for a given year from all of our digital partners — that’s billions of lines of data. So I try to help people wrap their heads around what they’re asking for.”
How much more complicated is it to manage royalties in the streaming era?
I gave a presentation about the evolution of royalties where I compared U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, from 2000, and Lady Gaga’s Born This Way, from 2011. The U2 release, which was initially only physical, involved a total of four products when it came out. With Born This Way, there were more than 100 unique assets. That’s counting the digital albums that have different rate structures. I remember Boyd [Muir, UMG’s CFO] looking at that and… (Gasps.) But it was the best way to show our workload. The number of people in the department isn’t so different, though; they used to have to do a lot more manually. Computers enable a lot of complexity, but also help us deal with it.
Streaming also complicates all of this because you’re moving from “transactional accounting,” where you’re counting sales, to “actuarial accounting,” where you’re also dividing pools of revenue.
In a world where everything was delivered through a physical or digital supply chain, you knew where you sent it, how it was used and how you needed to account for it. Now we have to hunt down and collect money much more rigorously.
Are you buying systems off the shelf, or are they all custom-built for you?
I wish there were an off-the-shelf solution. After an 18-month selection process, we’re working with an outside vendor that specializes in financial systems. The first piece of this, the Global Clearinghouse Initiative, just went live [in early July] — sales file ingestion, data aggregation and currency conversion for all of our digital partners.
How does that affect how you account to artists?
Since we’ll have monthly ingestion and reporting of financial data, we’re revamping our local royalty systems around the world so they’ll be able to account to artists on a monthly basis. We’re scheduled to do that outside the U.S. by early 2019, with the U.S. to follow shortly after that. Most of our agreements with artists call for quarterly or semi-annual accounting — but we know that artists would prefer more frequent reporting.
What’s the ultimate vision for all of this?
Artists expect more from us now — and they should. The idea of paying royalties on a quarterly or semi-annual basis was to allow physical products to cycle through — there were returns and so on. Today there’s a different dynamic — everything is moving faster. So we’re looking at ways to make our reporting even more responsive in the future. There’s no complacency here — there’s excitement about what we’re doing. People have never worked harder.
Even with the new system, won’t there be artists who still need to have some of this explained to them?
We get between 12,000 and 13,000 inquiries a year — an endless flurry ranging from simple address changes to notices about royalty participants passing away that have to be sorted out with the estate. A few years ago we invested in software that tracks all of this, so that every time someone calls, we track it, we know who handled it, we know what they did with it and we know how long it took to respond. I can see the trends: If a lot of people are calling because they’re confused about the same thing, that means we need to address it. One very prominent artist passed away and his estate had lost track of royalties for recordings he made for Motown as a child. We were able to pull the history, connect the dots and sort it out for the artist’s heirs. This is an honor and a burden that we take seriously.