PRS For Music CEO Robert Ashcroft Talks Challenges, Tech Innovations In Music Royalty Collection [INTERVIEW]
In this interview, George Howard spoke with PRS for Music CEO Robert Ashcroft about the challenges and opportunities of integrating technology with both recording and public performance so as to ensure artists are appropriately compensated for the use of their music.
Guest Post by George Howard on Forbes
I had the good fortune to moderate a panel during Berklee College of Music’s Rethink Music event that included the Chief Executive of PRS for Music, Robert Ashcroft. The panel grew contentious very quickly with respect to the role (or lack thereof) of new technology as it applies to music databases.
Stepping back from the panel for a moment, certainly, “the data issue” really is at the heart of the problems of the current music business. Depending on whom you believe:
- Certain parties have the data, and benefit by not sharing it
- No one has accurate data
- Companies could “fix” the data problem, but doing so is not in their interest
- The vast amount of historical data – much of it poorly cataloged (if at all) – makes it a fool’s errand to ever attempt to fix the problem
Of course, those in other data-heavy industries face similar issues. As we increasingly quantify data at granular levels – for instance, the field of wearables and genomics are really just addressing granular data problems – we are, as Bill Tai so eloquently summed up in my conversation with him, attempting to take heretofore unstructured data and structure it.
Perhaps no part of the music business has a bigger data problem than publishing. While a recording might have a number of performers, there is typically only one label that owns the right to the recording of the song. On the other hand, the rights around the song itself – in music business parlance, “the composition” – are often vastly more complex.
For instance, there might be several writers of a song, and each of these writers might have different publishers (who also have rights to the song), and if the song has a sample in it, this greatly expands the complexities. Of course, a single song also can be recorded by lots of different artists (i.e. be “covered), which – again – compounds the complexities with respect to who is owed money when the song is played on radio, sold, used in a movie, streamed, etc.
In the UK, PRS for Music represents songwriters, composers, and publishers with respect to the right of public performance of their songs. That is, any time a song is, for instance, played on radio, streamed, broadcast on TV, played in a venue, etc., PRS for Music is responsible for making sure that the songwriters and publishers of that song are paid.
Given this challenge, it was incredibly heartening to have Mr. Ashcroft espouse a technology-forward viewpoint during the panel. So much so, that I was compelled to reach out to him afterwards and request an interview in order to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing not just PRS for Music, but the music business generally; with an eye towards innovative ways to address the data problem.
Mr. Ashcroft was generous with his time and information. We spoke for a good deal of time, and I’ve broken the transcription of our conversation into several parts, each focusing on specific areas.
Below is part one, in which Mr. Ashcroft and I discuss the challenges detailed above, and Mr. Ashcroft iterates some initiatives that PRS for Music is embarking upon that I genuinely did not ever believe I’d see an institution of the size of PRS for Music take on.
It’s a testament to both Mr. Ashcroft’s background as a technologist, and the forward-looking view of the board of PRS for Music who brought him on, that PRS for Music appears to be leading the trail for other institutions of its ilk to follow.
The interview below has been edited lightly for clarity and grammar.
Robert Ashcroft is the CEO of PRS for Music. In this conversation with George Howard, he discusses the challenges and opportunities PRS for Music faces, and presents a surprisingly forward thinking approach with respect to technological solutions.
George Howard: I am really excited about this particular talk. I am going to ask my guest to introduce himself. So, Robert, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Robert Ashcroft: I am Robert Ashcroft. I am the Chief Executive of PRS for Music, which is the UK’s copyright collection society. So, roughly speaking, it is the ASCAP or BMI in the United States.
GH: Great. And, thanks so much for taking the time. I can only imagine how busy you are. We met at a panel that I moderated for the Berklee Rethink Event, and before I dive into that, can you give me thirty seconds or so on your background? How did you come to be the CEO of PRS for Music?
RA: Well, I worked at Sony Electronics for eight years. And, while I was there, I was in charge of their internet-related businesses – both in the United States, where I founded Sonystyle.com – and then in Europe. Not so much the e-commerce, but linking devices to internet services, through mobile, text, and broadcast networks. And, with that technology experience, I was then approached by PRS for Music because the internet and the all things related become very important for the music industry. I think they needed a chief executive who knew how to navigate that world.
GH: That explains so much. I am really glad that I asked that question because, as I said, we met on the panel, and contentious is not strong enough a word for it. Contrary to what some of the other panelists may have believed, I really had no objective other than sort of to facilitate a conversation, and it was a conversation about the technology in the music business. And, there were a couple of people, or at least one person up there, who was sort of deeply interested in crypto currency generally, and blockchain specifically, but I think people think that I am some sort of evangelist for blockchain tech. I am really not. I just think it’s interesting technology that could provide an answer.
And, I was so deeply impressed by you, as someone in your your position, to just sort of not dismiss blockchain or any other type of tech as being a potential for addressing some of the issues.
And now that you have given your background, it makes all the sense in the world. So, as you say, this sort of merger of technology and music is coming. And, I think that first questions that I asked you on the panel was: “What’s the biggest problem facing your business?”
So, as we sort of weave into my broader question, let’s pause on that for a second, what’s causing you stress as the CEO of PRS for Music these days?
RA: Well, I think that the biggest issue facing the industry in the internet era is metadata. We will have received notification of a trillion uses of music this year. Now that individual streams that are reported by the individual reporting services; the Spotify, the Youtubes, etc. of this world.
And, what these guys are streaming are sound recordings. But, sound recordings obviously have ownership of the publishing rights, composers, and songwriter’s rights embedded in them, and there are often multiple versions of them. Well, when I say multiple versions, there are rather multiple parties to each one.
GH: I am sorry to interrupt. But, just to be clear, I love how specific you are getting, but in the music business, there are two dominant copyrights: One for the composition – the person that writes the lyric, the melody; and then there is the copyright to the sound recording, which is the actual version of that song – which is typically owned by the label or the performer. And then, you are suggesting that there are now – call them “remixes” or “samples”; the legal term is a “derivative work” – of songs where you are mashing these different copyrights together into one work and sample and sort of…
RA: We haven’t even got there yet.
Even in a standard sound recording, there are other parties. So, what we have to do is, we have to know which sound recording is being used. And then we need to work out who has the author’s rights, and who has the publishing rights to that. So, we have this matching exercise that needs to go on. We try to match the International Standard Recording Code to the International Standard Works Code in order to work out who to pay. And, that exercise requires…
GH: And again, I am sorry to interrupt you, but, just for clarity, the ISRC codes and the ISWC Codes, which are supposed to line up with the different rights holders for those copyrights you just outlined.
RA: Correct. That’s right.
GH: In your job, just to pull back for a second, PRS for Music, the UK performance rights organization runs slightly different than the U.S. versions – which are ASCAP, BMI, and SECSAC – in the sense that you collect, not only for the so-called “right of public performance,” which is any type of broadcast – when a song is played on the radio, or on the websites, or in restaurants, etc. – but, also for the right of “reproduction and distribution,” which would typically be called a “mechanical license”; that is the term of art.
RA: Yes. We do. We do so under a contract with MCPS, which is our sister organization, the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, which is actually independent and outsourced business of both licensing and administration to PRS for Music. So, the rights are administered together.
GH: Perfect. So, could you in plain English, then describe how if a songwriter has his work or her work used in the U.K. – by that I mean played on the radio, or maybe sold via iTunes, or whatever – how do you intersect with those types of usages?
RA: So what we need to know is: What is the sound recording that has been used? And, then we need to match that to the underlying copyright. In other words, who wrote it and who publishes it? And, that matching exercise that requires the accurate metadata.
GH: And so, the flow then, is what? In the United states, it’s sort of this idea: “I am a songwriter or publisher, and a new work is created, I then register that work with the performance rights organizations with whom I am affiliated. I go online. I send in a form listing my writer’s share and my publisher’s share.”
Is there a similar sort of process in the U.K.?
RA: Yes. That’s happily universal.
GH: Right. And, you get this sort of mountain of data coming at you from all these songwriters because they have a vested interest, because if they don’t do this, and their songs are played on the radio, they get nothing. Correct?
RA: That’s right. They need to be registered in order to be paid.
GH: So, as we talked about in the beginning, this used to be a less complex landscape than it is today. Why is that? Why is it such a bigger challenge in 2015 than it was in 1995?
RA: Well, first all, because there is a much larger number of uses in music. In the year before I joined, I think the PRS for Music processed 15 million usages.
GH: What year was that? I’m sorry.
RA: That was in 2010. So in 2009, it was about 15 million. And, now we are up to one trillion.
GH: Oh, my Lord.
RA: It’s going to grow.
RA: In the old days, let’s say a download was a download for life. The stream is just a moment in time, with a single pair of ears, and it has generated a huge amount of data. So, that’s the thing. So, the other thing is, when you have got that amount of data, people want to be paid out on a transactional basis.
In the old days, when you couldn’t get the data, and, indeed today, we don’t go around with a clip board, and note down which songs are played in each cafe and bar in the land. We have to do some sort of analogy and we split the revenue over the determination by analogy. That’s “not” acceptable in the internet era.
GH: OK. I want to pause there for a second, because I couldn’t agree more. Right. So, this is something that I get when I talk to songwriters or artists, this comes up all the time. When I am trying to explain to them the right of public performance, and I say to them: “Well, look, you go and play in some club, in theory, you are supposed to be paid for that public performance, or if you cover someone’s song, the person whose song you are covering, is supposed to be paid.”
And, the artist I’m explaining this to always go: “Well, how?”
I say, “Well, there is no really great mechanism. They sort of look at a lot of different things and factor it in, but, they are not going just to send out a million people to sit in clubs to look at it.”
My own personal opinion is: Why not use some Shazam-esque type of device and stick it up in the corner of a club, and even if it is only sixty percent right, that’s going to be better than what we are doing.
But, I am fascinated by the fact that you say that is “unacceptable.” Because you just don’t hear people in your position saying that. So, what are you doing to make this better?
RA: We are engaged in a whole bunch of experiments, both in developing technology, we have a particular project that we are running with Google. Play at the momentum where we are looking at ways of getting the cost of the devices that would be left in premises around the land down to the point to where it is cost effective.
GH: That’s my Shazam idea. Right?
RA: That’s your Shazam idea.
There are also other specialist companies that have technologies, so that they can be deployed in nightclubs and other venues.
We’ve got a trial going on at the moment between three competing providers, looking for the best and most cost effective of using actual song recognition.
In addition to that we are putting a facility on our website to enable people to record the songs that they play in gigs around the land. We call it the Set List Hub. And with the technology at our disposal we try to find ways of gathering data to be more and more accurate.
GH: Okay. So, I am with you. Right. So, two things come to mind: First off: awesome. Glad that’s happening. Second, if you succeed at that, that is only going to add more orders of magnitude to your incoming data. Right?
GH: The event is going to be a sort of an iterative process. And, second, particularly with this respect to one of the things you said. we are going to have, I forget what you call it, “Song Hub” or whatever where people sort of go in and say: I played these songs.
It leads me to my fundamental problem with data generally, which is the “garbage in scenario.” Whether good faith, or bad faith, somebody puts bad data into the system. Right? And, that must be a massive problem for you, right?
RA: It is. When you think about this Setlist Hub idea, if you have an app and both the people are performing, and the audience are able to put the data in. Then, you have some sort of check on the accuracy, just by virtue of the row of numbers. If you were to . . .
GH: So, play that out for me. So, you are saying that the data smoothes out. The outliers smooth out just because of large numbers. Is that what you are saying? Is that what you mean?
RA: Well, that’s the theory behind this. If you’ve enough people reporting then you are more likely to come to the absolute truth, both in terms of accuracy and in terms of knowledge.
GH: So, I didn’t understand the premise. So, the premise isn’t that the songwriters is putting in the data, it is the fans themselves that are using it?
RA: It’s both.
GH: It’s both. OK. So, you are sort of crowd-sourcing the metadata. What is the incentive for some customer, or, as you would say in England: “punter,” to do this? They are at some show, like why are they going to open some app and put the song name in”
RA: It’s really simple. People love music.
GH: Well, that’s true. So, yes, but…
RA: They want to say: “Hey, I listen to this great song,”, or “They played so and so.”
GH: That’s bad ass. So, I have this theory, all successful internet applications have to be social, fun, and competitive. And competitive is just sort of a “game mechanics” thing. It doesn’t mean that you have to win, but you have to get something.
And so, your premise is that people love music. “Hey, this band is playing this thing, and I’m, for some reason going to add this in,” and then you are going to sift through that. I love that! Why is nobody else doing it? Are other people doing this?
RA: I don’t know. This is something that we are just experimenting with, at the moment. So, if I am brutally honest, our web infrastructure, if you go into our website, then it is not exactly…
GH: I have. It’s a nightmare.
RA: It a nightmare. And, we got a huge project… the “Digital Transformation Project.” Because we have systematically over the years, squeezed all the drops of juice out of the lemon, and not really reinvested in the technology. And, we are working in an era now where that is no longer possible. So, with engaging in all of these things, music recognition technology to set this up, to upgrade the digital nature of our business.
In the next part of this interview, Mr. Ashcroft and I dive deeper into the data challenges and opportunities. Stay tuned.