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Songtrust’s New Chief Strategy Officer, Joe Conyers III, Slams Streaming Services’ CRB Appeal

Jem Aswad

Songtrust, the digital rights-management platform cofounded by Downtown Music Publishing’s Justin Kalifowitz, today announced that Joe Conyers III has been elevated to Chief Strategy Officer.

According to the announcement, as co-founder and GM of Songtrust for the past eight years, Conyers has led the company from prototype to servicing over 20,000 publishers to collect their publishing royalties worldwide for over 1,000,000 copyrights, currently working with more than 150,000 songwriters. Still reporting directly to Kalifowitz, Conyers will be responsible for developing and driving the company’s strategic priorities across the organization for years to come.

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“When we first started thinking about ways in which we could radically streamline global royalty collection for songwriters at all levels, we had the good fortune of meeting Joe Conyers,” said Kalifowitz. “Convincing Joe to join the music business in 2011 was no easy task, but after considering the inequity in the marketplace and the opportunity to democratize royalty collection, Joe jumped in with both feet, focusing on changing the industry at scale. Now, after growing Songtrust’s internal capabilities, Joe has a clear lane to focus on longer-range planning and the company’s broader mission to empower songwriters and music publishers worldwide.”

The organization has grown significantly since it was founded in 2011 and over the past two years has brought on more than 50 new employees, including Molly Neuman as Global Head of Business Development, Brad Yuan as Global Head of Rights Management Operations, Noam Mantel as Head of Product, Dewayne Ector as Head of Society Relations.

“Launching Songtrust at a time that in many ways felt like the bottom of the industry, it’s been remarkable achieving what many thought then was an impossible task: democratizing music publishing,” said Conyers. “Nearly a decade in, where Songtrust has become the default partner for many in the creative community, we are still pushing forward, building both technology and relationships to ensure our clients get paid even more accurately, fairly and in a timely fashion. I look forward to the continued leadership of our incredibly fast growing business through the industry’s tremendous growth and continue to serve our outstanding clients.”

Conyers spoke with Variety about his new position at Songtrust — and the company’s stance on Amazon, Google, Sirius/XM and Spotify’s appeal to the Copyright Royalty Board’s 2018 decision to raise songwriter rates some 44% over the next five years.

How is your new role at Songtrust different?
I came to Songtrust when it was just a protoype and we’ve really built it into a global business, we’re tied in with all these [non-U.S.] PROs and we just hired a head of society relations, based in London, who is going to help us work with them. I had a relatively small team until a few years ago until we started scaling the business out, so I can focus on the long-term of the business, things like our relationships with societies and the global communities and making sure that our clients get their royalties as quickly as possible. We’re expanding our services into audiovisual and broadcast rights, and we service about 20,000 other businesses beyond individuals — companies like Sub Pop and the Orchard and DistroKid — and what more they need. With this new team I’ve been able to step out of the day-to-day — I was leading user experience and design, product organization, our operations — and now I can focus on the things I just mentioned, as well as our relationship with Spotify and the other streaming services [that are appealing the CRB ruling].

What’s Songtrust’s stance on it?
Obviously bundling is important, but I think they’re using this as a chance to try to sneak in a lot more rights — free-market negotiated things like lyric rights and video rights — than what they got in the first round of the CRB. From our side, it looks like they were basically sitting around for more than a year, not paying [the additional fees CRB ruled], and songwriters are scratching their heads and saying, “I thought this was already decided and I’m supposed to get a check? What’s going on?”  They’re trying to get non-compulsory things into a compulsory license under a fixed rate. I’d be shocked if a judge agreed to it.

The CRB announced its decision in January of 2018. Why do you think the streaming companies waited so long to appeal?
This was one of the last days they could appeal, and for all the time they delay, they’re getting free cashflow. They’re sitting on quite a big payment to songwriters — this appeal is going to last another six months. You could say they don’t need the cash, but they’re not hurting from it, and Wall Street would like them to have as much cash on the balance sheet as they can.

Does it seem ironic that two of the four companies appealing the ruling — Amazon and Google — are among the wealthiest companies in the entire world?
Certainly, but it also goes to show that Apple, who had previously guaranteed us higher rates in free-market negotiations, did not — and they are actually one of the wealthiest companies in the world, if not the wealthiest. Amazon is certainly part of the Jeff Bezos school of keeping costs down, and Spotify is being hit hard by being a public company so they have to do the same — but we are already one of their lowest costs of content. These songwriters are not getting paid a ton of money.

So what’s the solution? We’re hearing a lot of people saying that streaming services must raise their monthly subscription costs.
And everyone’s afraid to raise their prices — since Spotify started [in 2008], the $9.99 they charge, adjusted for inflation, would look more like $12.99. At some point someone is going to have to bite the bullet and raise prices. Their cost of content has to go up with inflation too.

But don’t you think there’ll be a strong reaction against that? It already seems miraculous that a generation that grew up getting music for free has largely been convinced that it’s worth paying for — and now we’re talking about raising the price by 30% or whatever?
Well, Spotify’s whole argument these days is that they’re providing such better service and [user] experience, especially against Apple — well, if it’s so good maybe they should be able to raise their prices against their competitors. We’ve given them plenty of time to get their advertising model into a better place, which is making incremental progress, and [to that end] the Pandora/SiriusXM combination could be very interesting.

But overall I see that as just an excuse. If paying for streaming is an inevitability, then raise your ad load to such an annoying place that people feel they have to pay. And let’s look at [the others] too: They all had plenty of time to think about this during the proceedings with CRB, they weren’t talking to each other — why don’t they come back to us with these bundle opportunities and have free-market negotiations? We might say “Sure, that will convert more users, that’s a great plan!” But I haven’t had that conversation with them in a meaningful manner. They have deliberately talked about their mission in helping creators have careers, and the best place to start is songwriting.

How did you feel about those efforts Troy Carter’s team made at Spotify, with Secret Genius and adding song credits and other programs?
We had a number of writers who were Secret Geniuses, it was very kind of them to shine a little bit of light, and this actually got some real publicity and marketing dollars behind it — it was the first attention we’ve ever gotten from any DSP, apart from some small programs, over the years. I appreciate that there’s been a ton of work done there, but that doesn’t mean they’re precluded from doing everything else that’s right. There also needs to be work at getting our licensing to a much equitable rate: The licensing part is an attack on songwriters.

 

 

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