Is Home Transcribing Killing Music?!

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You may have read this morning that the latest Internet institutions in the crosshairs of the music industry’s acronymous suit-wearers are lyrics websites — the National Music Publishers’ Association has filed takedown notices against 50 websites that they allege have failed to remunerate them for licenses covering the lyrics that they’re displaying online. The decision of which sites to target was based on a study by David Lowery, who’s a researcher at the University of Georgia (and also a member of Camper Van Beethoven). Lowery is quoted as saying, “Unlicensed lyric sites are largely ignored as copyright infringers, but in fact these sites generate huge web traffic and involve more money than one might think. The lyric business is clearly more valuable in the Internet age.” Can it be true? Is home transcribing killing music?!

The immediate, gut reaction to this it that it’s exactly the sort of grasping shortsighted “THIS IS MINE YOU CAN’T HAVE IT” idiocy that’s been undermining the music industry for years. There’s at least some sort of argument to be made that a song being downloaded illegally, or its audio appearing on YouTube, are things that can undermine a band’s sales figures. There’s no such argument to be made here. Instead, the publishers are upset about the fact that the sites aren’t licensing the lyrics, to which they own the rights.

You’d expect that publishers would want to encourage interest in their artists — a whole heap of people discussing a lyric on RapGenius is indicative of a thriving fan community, many members of which are likely to buy recordings, or at least go and see the artist when they’re on tour, and maybe buy a T-shirt. Similarly, tab sites are where fans go to learn how to play their favorite band’s songs. Is it worth pissing in the face of that fan community for the sake of a few publishing dollars?

After all, there are few things more likely to annoy fans than when they go to look up their favorite lyric or watch the video for their favorite song on YouTube, only to get a notice saying “We are not authorized to display these lyrics” or “This video contained a copyrighted audio track, which has been muted.” Fans tend not to care about the strict legalities of this stuff; to them, it looks like penny-pinching pettiness from companies who make money hand over fist. In that respect, you might take the view that it’s more pragmatic for publishers to take a relatively small financial hit on the existence of these sites — an investment in your fans’ goodwill, as it were — than to napalm them in the name of your legal rights.

But that sort of holistic thinking is, as we all know, basically nonexistent in the music industry. Instead, the suit-wearers of the RIAA and the NMPA (and etc.) are inclined to slash and burn anything and everything in the way of its precious profits, even if such short-termism is likely to undermine such profits in the long-term. If you treat your fans like the enemy, they tend to regard you as such also. In this respect, the strict legal rights and wrongs of the matter — because, honestly, no one’s arguing that sites like RapGenius have any legal right to make a fortune in advertising dollars off the hard work of artists who they don’t remunerate at all — are less important than what these legal crusades do to your public image, especially if you are a representative of an industry that’s spent the last couple of decades apparently trying to lay waste to that public image at any possible opportunity.

And in any case, before you start to feel too bad for publishing rights holders, here’s something to consider. The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle had some interesting things to say about this subject on his Tumblr this morning, arguing that for all it’s “manifestly the case that the sites in question are profiting from others’ work and offering the worker — i.e., the lyricists — nothing in return” he also doubts the NMPA’s argument that their existence “significantly impacts [his] ability to make a living.”

He’s right, for the simple reason that artists have always gotten a piddling proportion of publishing royalties. It’s not artists who are losing from this; they may lose a small amount of cash that might be recouped from the licensing fees these sites should be paying, but who cares? It’s not like that was paying their mortgage in the first place. Darnielle cites SongMeanings, which does something similar to RapGenius, as “[a] places where spirited discussion about the lyrics takes place in a relatively neutral environment in comments threads, which is cool in my opinion.”

Most interestingly, though, Darnielle suggests that “artists wishing to work around this can probably cobble together a ‘here’s my lyrics’ section of their website and put some AdSense ads on it and be offering a measurably superior product.” He’s right, except for one thing: they’re almost certainly not allowed to. Ever noticed that little piece of text on the inside of CD booklets that says “Lyrics reproduced by kind permission of the publisher”? That’s there because in the majority of cases, artists don’t own their own lyrics. That’s because a standard recording contract involves assigning both copyright and publishing rights over to someone who isn’t you. (For a great rundown of the manifold ways in which recording contracts screw artists, see here.)

This means that there’s a divergence between the interests of artists and the interests of the industry bodies that ostensibly exist to protect them. Anyone who’s followed the antics of the RIAA over the years won’t exactly be shocked by this — and again, what we have here is a bunch of people who are making a handsome living profiting from the work of artists confronting another bunch of people who would like to make a handsome living profiting from the work of artists and saying, “Hey, get off our our turf!”

In this respect, it’s hard to take NMPA president/CEO David Israelite’s bleating that “These lyric sites have ignored the law and profited off the songwriters’ creative works, and NMPA will not allow this to continue” in any way seriously. In a legal sense, he’s right, but profiting off songwriters’ creative works is exactly what his members have done for years, even if they’re also providing the service of helping those songwriters license and earn money on their compositions. Why should artists care either way? As ever in the music industry, it’s them who’s getting screwed. Same as it ever was.