Melissa Ferrick likes the idea of online music streaming services — she just wants to make sure she gets paid when they play her compositions. Right now, the folk-ish singer-songwriter says that’s not always happening. So on Jan. 8 she became the second songwriter to file a proposed class-action copyright infringement lawsuit against Spotify, after Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven frontman David Lowery. (Technically. Ferrick is the named plaintiff in the suit, which was filed by the law firm Gradstein & Marzano.) Within weeks, a judge is expected to decide whether to consolidate the two cases.
“I’m an advocate for artists rights,” says Ferrick, who opened for Morrissey on his 1991 tour and was signed to Atlantic Records for a few years in the nineties. She now runs her own label and works as an associate professor at the Berklee College of Music. During a phone interview with Billboard, Ferrick says she knew she wasn’t making much money when her music streamed on Spotify, but she didn’t realize until a couple of months ago that the company wasn’t paying mechanical royalties on more than 100 of her compositions — because it hadn’t licensed them. Once she did, she decided to act. “Copyright law is there for a reason,” she says. “Hopefully this will set a precedent for companies to follow the laws that already exist.”
It’s not a secret that Spotify has issues with mechanical royalties. When and how did you decide to sue?
I came to my ‘Oprah ah-ha’ moment last summer when I was sort of putting my house in order. I’ve always owned my own publishing and I now also administer it — which is a whole other job. I was preparing to teach a Berklee course called “Launch Your DIY Career” and I was taking notes on how to explain everything: How to register with a performance rights organization [like ASCAP or BMI], how to get ISRCs [the International Standard Recording Code numbers that identify sound recordings]. In the process, I realized I should get help monetizing my own digital distribution.
So you reached out to Jeff Price at Audiam, which helps songwriters and publishers collect mechanical royalties?
Yes, to make sure I was getting streaming royalties. I was getting very low payments for online streaming, and I was thinking about not letting my most recent album, Melissa Ferrick, be streamed. At the time I didn’t know if Spotify had licenses but I knew the company hadn’t requested them from me: They never sent me NOIs [Notices of Intent]. So I asked The Harry Fox Agency and they said that Wixen [which administered Ferrick’s publishing from 1996 until late 2014] hadn’t received them. I called Spotify, which said they would send me NOIs. That was December 1st, and there have been no NOIs.
Standing up to big technology companies isn’t for the faint of heart.
I couldn’t understand why no one had done anything. I had a nervous moment when I saw the front page of the lawsuit and saw my name in all caps — “versus Spotify.” It’s a class-action lawsuit, so it’s not really me against them, but my name is in caps.
I’m not sure why anyone would be upset at me for standing up for my rights and the rights of independent musicians and publishers. I read a few pretty misogynistic things online and it hurt my feelings because I’m a pretty emotional person, but I also thought I could use those feelings as fuel.
Are you worried that people in the music business who like Spotify will hold this against you?
No — I don’t think anyone thinks about me that much! And I’m not upset with people who like or use Spotify. It’s not that I don’t think it’s a cool way to listen to music, they’re just not legally obtaining the licenses they need for streaming. It’s not the consumer’s fault.
Spotify has always said it’s a good actor, since the company is holding mechanical royalties for songwriters in escrow. What do you think about that?
My reaction is: Why haven’t you paid us already? They’ve infringed on 127 of my copyrights. This infringe-now-and-pay-later cannot become the norm. I’m not going to print beautiful copies of art, hang them in a gallery, charge $20 admission and save some of it until a lawyer who represents the artists shows up!
What are you looking for out of the lawsuit?
The layman sees $200 million [in potential damages for the class of copyright owners, presuming one can be certified], but this isn’t about trying to get money from a big company. I hope I get paid what I’m owed but also that the students in my “Lyric Writing 2” class who are independent publishers of their own songs can get paid. There’s nothing sinister about this lawsuit — this is a real issue that’s affecting real people.
The NMPA — the National Music Publishers Association — is also apparently working on a way to settle this issue with Spotify. What do you think about that?
As someone who owns and administers my own publishing I want to stand up for other people who own and administer their work. I’m not alone out here. It may look like it now, but I’m not