Thursday, July 11, 2013

Irving Berlin lived at the right time

Irving Berlin lived at the right time.  So did Doc Pomus.  And Bernie Taupin.   Harlan Howard, Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry, “Yip” Harburg were also lucky to be born when they were.  In fact, practically the entire Songwriters Hall of Fame, pre rock and roll, should consider themselves lucky they were born when they were.
None of them had to worry about Pandora, Spotify or any other music streaming service.
“God Bless America”, “White Christmas” (Berlin); “Save the Last Dance for Me”,” Lonely Avenue” (Pomus); “Tiny Dancer”, “Candle in the Wind” (Taupin); “Streets of Baltimore”, “I Fall to Pieces” (Howard); “Leader of the Pack”, “River Deep, Mountain High” (Greenwich/Barry); “It’s Only a Paper Moon”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (Harburg) – these are just a few examples of songs written by NON-performers.   Those titles are amongst the most popular songs written in the past 100 years.  Any of those – and hundreds more – have been successfully recorded by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of artists during that time.   The songwriters received royalties based on the number of records sold and on the sales of sheet music and songbooks containing the fruits of their labors.  
When the item sold is a physical item (LP’s, CD’s, cassettes) a pre-set mechanical royalty comes into play.  The mechanical royalty is set by Congress and has been since 1909 when the rate was established at two cents.   The current rate is set at 9.1 cents (a bit more if a song is over 5 minutes).   Downloads are also subject to these rates.  Sheet music is generally a % of the cost of the item.
While there are still myriad ways in which the songwriter was denied the full royalty rate, some legitimate and some not so much, most of these were front and center to the songwriter.  That at least allowed the songwriter to make an informed decision or at least understand where they were taking a hit to the established royalty rate they were entitled to collect.
Collecting these royalties and distributing these monies are generally done by companies such as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) and BMI (Broadcast Music , Inc) in the US and similar organizations outside the US.
Radio royalties are generally collected as a percentage of advertising revenue and songwriters receive their share based on formulas designed to impart some level of fairness.  In addition bonus money is available for songs that are played over X amount of times in a designated period (typically a quarter) or that have established themselves as all-time perennials  or standards (think “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” for a contemporary example).  Whether or not these formulas truly properly distributed the collected fees to the songwriters is another discussion, but simply put the percentage used in calculating the gross amount was set across the entirety of the radio medium.
Radio stations derive their revenue from advertising sales.  Stations are free to set their rates based on what the market will bear; free to decide how many minutes of ads per hour will be run and decide the mix of 60 seconds, 30 seconds, 15 seconds or even shorter lengths ads to make up the content.  While the average today is around 9 minutes, stronger economic times have seen as much as 20 minutes per hour.  The key here is that each station has the responsibility to understand their market. 
That brings us to streaming services such as Pandora and Spotify.  These types of outlets pay on a per 100 songs basis.   Pandora pays 12 cents/100 and Spotify 35cents/100 (Spotify is an on demand service, hence the higher rate).  Another way of looking at this is that you need to go to THREE spots to the right of the decimal to reach a number (.0012 for Pandora and .0035 Spotify ).
So, for the solo performer who pens the tune they sing, self-publish and releases on their own label ONE MILLION plays will yield $1200 in royalties from Pandora and $3500 from Spotify.  Of course most music is not made by solo performers.  Many songs are written in collaboration.  Most artists do not set up their own publishing houses or recording labels.  That means the the royalties are split amongst a number of involved parties.
Contrast that with the mechanical royalty rate of 9.1 cents.  One million unit sales will yield $91000 in royalties for the songwriting copyright alone.  
Now by now you may be wondering why all the songwriters listed at the start of this article were lucky they preceded Pandora and other streaming services?  After all streaming services allow more music to be heard by more people for longer periods of time than ever before.  One is no longer confined to hearing only what – and when – a radio station decides to play a specific song.  Or any song for that matter.  Isn’t the opportunity for more people to hear a singer or a band more often a great way for these performers to make themselves known to a wider listening audience?  Doesn’t this promote their “brand”, allowing them to increase ticket sales, merchandise sales, performance royalties from their labels?  Well, yes it does.  EXCEPT the artists listed above – and so, so many more unnamed and unknown – are NOT performers.   Their revenue is the song itself.
That is why Pandora’s request to Congress to reduce the amount of royalties they pay is so wrong. 
Pandora, quite simply, is looking to maximize their profits on the backs of the very folks who create the music that gives Pandora the reason for their existence.
Pandora currently has two primary revenue streams – monthly subscriptions (that are ad free) and limited hourly ads that broadcast to non-subscribing listeners.   Pandora is making the argument that their current schedule of royalty fees is costing them too much and preventing them from turning a profit.
There are two answers to that:
1)      Increase your revenue streams (higher subscription fees and/or sell more ads)
2)      Why is Pandora guaranteed a profit?  That is, what makes Pandora different than any other business?  If the business model does not work – change the business model.
Tim Westergren, Pandora’s founder, has recently posted on the Pandora website his rationale (justification?) for his company’s seeking a new royalty payment structure read it here:  The irony, of course, is that Pandora is now “player” – not an upstart – in the business world.  Its IPO raised over $230 million just two years ago.  The songwriters, who would suffer the most, are simply small entrepreneurs.  The ultimate small businesses.  If their songs don’t sell – they don’t eat.
Recall that mechanical royalties are currently set at 9.1 cents, yet from 1909 through 1976 the rate remained at the same 2 cents level.  That’s right – the rate did not budget for over SIX decades.  Is it any wonder that Pandora’s lobbying for paying reduced royalties would stick in the craw of any songwriter?
This is not just about Pandora, of course.  Spotify would benefit from any adjustment in royalty rates as well.   The founder of Spotify has gone on record, in a recent Wall Street Journal  article (, as envisioning Spotify being able to customize your playlists based on your location(such as when your smart phone detects you are at your gym or in your home).  He also spoke of other ways Spotify could deliver music to you – at a cost.  Nowhere in the article are artists even mentioned.  It’s as if all this music came fully formed and it is the delivery system that is the true reason for music.  At least Pandora’s Wintergren pays lip service to the artists who make the music (if not the folks who initially create the music).
Spotify does appear to have a different business model than Pandora, focusing on more 3rd party apps that allow the consumer to have an enhanced listening experience.  While many of these apps are currently free, it does not take a leap of imagination to envision a time where some charge is attached.  That is another reason why Pandora’s lobbying for a change in what they pay for the use of songs is so frightening to songwriters – it would impact all such streaming services.  Companies such as Spotify, who are aggressively developing a business model unlike Pandora, would reap what amounts to a windfall profit. 
Despite Pandora’s protestations of the current drag on their profits due to the way their royalties are calculated, they are projecting to a breakeven point for Q2 2013.  This simply underscores the point that they need to change their business model.  The current subscriber base, as reported by Pandora ( is 2.5 million.  The cost is $36/year.   Is that modest annual cost the absolute upper limit that Pandora can charge?  Fundamentally that is the question.

Ultimately it comes down to fairness.  Do you support the delivery system or do you support the creators of the very music that is the reason for Pandora, Spotify and other such streaming services.  Do you support David…or Goliath?

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Bob Welch - crucial link in Fleetwood Mac history

Fleetwood Mac is one of the longest lasting rock and roll bands from the mid-late 1960’s British Invasion, having been formed around 1967 as a blues band and recording into the 21st century.  Controversy and turmoil have marked their history as much as some of the finest records ever made. Even an honor such as induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was marred by acrimony and lawsuits.  And it was Bob Welch, a crucial link from the Peter Green days of blues to the Buckingham/Nicks years of Gold and Platinum pop hits, who was both in the center of the groups recording history  and the controversial decision to omit him as a member of Fleetwood Mac when the group was inducted in 1998.
The original lineup featured Mick Fleetwood and John McVie – who give the band their name – as well as Peter Green (the founder) and Jeremy Spencer on guitars.  Green, especially, and Spencer provided the musical direction.
Fleetwood Mac’s initial recordings had minimal impact in the US even while landing 4 singles in the UK Top 10.  Album sales also were laggard in US while UK lp sales followed the same pattern as their singles – Top 10 positioning.
Ironically it was a cover version of Peter Green’s “Black Magic Woman” by the Woodstock era version of Santana that had the biggest impact in the US.  However the strong association with Santana and that song in the US, coupled with both Green’s and Spencer’s increasingly erratic behavior, cost Fleetwood Mac any chance to capitalize in the US with any sustained success.
The departure of Green, Spencer and, a few years later, Danny Kirwan effectively ended Fleetwood Mac’s tenure as a blues band.  Christine McVie (nee Christine Perfect) joined the band fulltime after the “Bare Trees” lp was recorded (she contributed both vocals and the album cover art), but it was the addition of American guitarist Bob Welch that arguably was the glue that held the band together until the mega success years after Lindsay Buckingham/Stevie Nicks joined the band – to replace Bob Welch.
The irony of Welch’s tenure is that his being American did help boost US record sales and provide the band with a higher profile outside the UK, even as the band saw UK sales drop off.
The history of Fleetwood Mac is marked by turmoil and turnover amongst the members and the Bob Welch era was no different.  The biggest obstacle to the band during Welch’s term was their own manager.  Clifford Davis put out a toring band as Fleetwood Mac – without any actual members of Fleetwood Mac involved.  This bizarre turn of events was triggered by the firing of lead guitarist Bob Weston who had an affair with Mick Fleetwood’s wife.  The band sued their own manager, but the damage was done in that the band once again was thwarted in their attempts to build some momentum to support “Mystery to Me”  their latest release. 
Shortly after the recording of “Heroes are Hard to Find” Welch left the band.  He later admitted to feeling a sense of estrangement from the McVies, although he continued his career with Mick Fleetwood as his manager.
The real problem started when Welch became aware that Fleetwood and the McVies had negotiated an increase in royalties for the recordings made during his time with the band.  The inevitable lawsuit followed having the impact of keeping Welch from being able to communicate with Mick Fleetwood – and it was during this period that Fleetwood Mac was voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
It is the Hall of Fame who decides, when a band has had many changes in the lineup over their history, who is honored and who is not.  That is not to say that the band has no influence (see who is in as part of the Grateful Dead band – Jerry Garcia lobbied for a few folks whose contributions were questioned), but it appears that Welch’s timing was once again off.  Mick Fleetwood – nor any other Fleetwood Mac representatives – stepped up to plead the case for the 1st American band member.  Welch not only was friendly with Buckingham and Nicks prior to their joining Fleetwood Mac, but he also recorded his Fleetwood Mac song “Sentimental Lady” with members of the band.  So it does not appear that any of the band lobbied against his inclusion
One has to assume that Welch’s snub was more a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame decision and reflected the bias the hall seems to have towards more pop oriented rock and roll.
If that was the case, then this excerpt from the official Fleetwood Mac bio on the website for the R&R HoF just adds to the mystery as to why Bob Welch as snubbed (note – my added emphasis):
… guitarist Bob Welch, a Southern Californian who became the group’s first American member and a harbinger of new directions. This configuration produced a pair of ethereal pop masterpieces, Future Games (1971) and Bare Trees (1972).
Fleetwood Mac was a UK favorite from the start, but it was not until Bob Welch added some stability and consistent song writing to the group that they began to make inroads in the US.   Bob Welch was more than just a stopgap in the story of storied band – he was a crucial addition.

Sadly Bob Welch will never see the day where this wrong will be righted as he died on June 7, 2012.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Doubling down - but not in MLB!

The record has stood since 1931, but for the 2nd straight year there is a player making a run to surpass the 67 doubles stroked by Earl Webb.  Last year Joey Votto (Reds)  was on a pace to break both the NL and the MLB record for doubles in a season before his season was interrupted by injury.  This year it is Baltimore O’s 3B Manny Machado who is challenging that 82 year old total.  Through games of 6/30 Machado had banged out 38 two baggers – a pace that, if maintained, will surpass 70 for the 1st time in MLB history.
There is something else going on with doubles that seems to have flown under the radar of most fans and commentators and that is that the once rarified level of 50 doubles in a season has now become a much more common threshold of achievement.
The early 20th century was, of course, known as the deadball era and home runs were few and far between.  League leading totals rarely topped 20 – never 30 – and as late as 1918 Babe Ruth lead MLB with 11 homers.    The 1920’s and 30’s were known for their explosive offenses.  Thirty two  times the 50 level was reached, with the 60 mark surpassed 6 times.  The last players to reach at least 60 doubles in a season were Ducky Medwick and Charlie Gehringer in 1936.  Medwick’s total of 64 is the highest season total in NL history.
We see that a different pattern emerged throughout the 1940’s and holding until 1993; the relative scarcity of 50 or more doubles in a season.  The years 1940-93 saw only 13 such seasons.  By comparison during that time there were 10 seasons where 50 HR’s or more were hit.    In fact, from 1940-1969 there were only 8 such seasons of 50 2B’s – matching the 8 seasons where 50 or more HR’s were hit.  The 1960’s saw 3 seasons of 50 or more (including Roger Maris’ 61 in 61 season), but only 1 season where 50 doubles were stroked (Frank Robinson with 51 in 1962).   It would not be until 1977 when 50 doubles level was reached again (Hal McRae with 54).  Pete Rose followed with 51 in 1978.   The 1980’s had 2 seasons (Don Mattingly with 54 in 1986 and Wade Boggs with 51 in 1989.  John Olerud hit 54 for the BlueJays in 1993 – then things started to get interesting.
The strike shortened season of 1994 was a huge disappointment for fans of doubles as three players (Chuck Knoblauch, Matt Williams and Larry Walker) were all over 40 when the season was cancelled approximately 2/3 through the season.  Projected to a full season that would have given us THREE players reaching the 60 doubles threshold.  The real story began in 1995 as 3 players made the 50 mark.  Then 2 more in 1996.  Another in 1997… and at least 1 player reaching 50 doubles all the way through the 2009 season; 15 consecutive years encompassing 38 individual seasons.  If you are keeping score, that is 50 seasons from 1887-1993 and 38 seasons from 1995-2009.   After 2 relatively quiet seasons, 3 players reached 50 in 2012.   This season there are 7 players, in addition to Machado, who are on pace to reach 50 doubles.
The increase in individual seasons reaching the 50 doubles plateau is indicative of how the game has changed; both HR’s and 2B’s, as a percentage of total hits, are at all time highs.  Since the start of the 21st century, as batting averages have drifted downward, the % of extra base hits has gone up.    Nowadays approximately 1 hit in 3 is for extra bases.

This chart breaks down the 50 or more seasons by decade.  Please note there were zero seasons of 50 or more doubles during the 1900-09 decade.  The 3 listed were achieved during the 1890’s.
There have been 20 seasons where a player had at least 55 doubles and 7 of those seasons have happened since 1999. 

50 and above