Music Money and Metadata Part 3: The Artist and the "Portal of Truth"

Apr 11, 2017

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CRAIG HAVIGHURST) In the series Music Money and Metadata, I've been investigating an effort to fix a system that more and more artists say is unsustainable. Cutting edge technological solutions appear close to helping songwriters and artists get paid accurately and quickly for the millions of uses of their music across the internet.

So far we've met Chris McMurtry, founder of DART Data, a Nashville company that's figured out a way to consolidate and correct the hundreds of databases of song information out there, where mistakes and inconsistencies leave money unclaimed or unpaid. And we talked with the founder of Dot Blockchain, a non-profit working with DART to apply accurate metadata to a global system of payment based on the same technology that's powered Bitcoin.

Songwriter Mary Gauthier has been following these efforts closely, and this installment of our series features excerpts from a conversation with her about the business side of her career. The Nashville based artist has had a variety of record and publishing deals and phases where she's run her own affairs. She and her independent artist colleagues are excited about what they see going on South of Broadway here in Music City.

"We’re not technologists but we’re in agreement and Chris is too, that what we need is a truth portal. We need a single portal that forces transparency so we can see the truth about our money. Instead of all these walls that we can’t get through to see the truth about our money. And it turns out that’s exactly what Chris is developing. He told me that it’s possible that at some point in the near future, I can go to an app online, hit a button and see who’s playing my music where and how much royalties are coming-- all over the world."

Because it’s all connected through the DART technology. Through a single database. They can’t hide behind an excuse or a firewall because DART can identify the song with the writer and the writer with the song in real time, in real spins, globally. That’s a big deal."

Songwriter/artists are at an information disadvantage because the music business and its money flows are so convoluted. Imagine your tax record keeping on steroids and that's something like what songwriters in mid career with large numbers of compositions and recordings face.

"For me it’s complex in the sense that I’ve had six record deals. Everything from indies to majors to in-betweens. And I’ve had four record deals overseas, with different companies. So I’ve got all these different companies reporting to me. Including—I have four records that I’ve released myself. So to be honest with you, I can’t sit down and read any of it. I just take what they give me and I hope that it amounts to next month’s rent."

You know, I don’t have the patience or the ability to dispute anything that looks weird anyway. I don’t have a team of lawyers. There’s no way I’m—am I gonna sue Universal? Am I gonna sue Razor and Tie, or for that matter, Proper Records in England or Munich Records in Holland? They send me what they send me and I don’t have a way of proving or disproving anything. To have a single technology that can prove it in real time would be earth-changing. It would change everything."

For decades, the core channel through with songwriters get paid for public performance has been the Performing Rights Organizations - ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. They monitor radio stations and public music systems in restaurants for example, calculating the number of plays or spins in a fiscal quarter and paying - often far after the fact. Mary Gauthier says the PROs are not transparent about their calculations and that she doesn't trust their methods.

"They pay what they want to pay. They always have. We’ve always been at their mercy. We’re reluctant to say anything because a lot of us are particularly standalone songwriters who don’t tour like I do. I make my money from traveling and playing for people but a standalone songwriter has been living off of their ASCAP or SESAC or BMI check for their career. And so they’re not going to say anything, but as if we could go in and make sense of whether or not those were real spins and dispute."

They don’t track the radio stations I get played on. They’re only tracking certain ones. They don’t track the ones that would be likely to play me. They don’t track folk radio and they barely track any Americana radio. So to force transparency there, it would be an oh happy day."

I reached out to the PROs for a response and it quickly became clear that the answers were detailed enough to merit their own segment. So as soon as we sit down with representatives from ASCAP and BMI, we'll share them here.

If you follow these issues, you've certainly heard a lot about efforts to modernize copyright policies at the federal level. But Gauthier has about given up on those efforts.

"One thing I know: the politicians aren’t gonna fix it. How many songwriters have gone to Washington? How many high profile, famous songwriters have gone to Washington and met with senators and congressmen and wowed them and they all fell in love and they signed pictures and they laughed and nothing changed?"

The music business is not gonna come together on this. We’re at odds with each other on this. The writers are fighting with the publishers; the publishers are fighting with the labels; the labels are fighting with the manufacturers and the stores.  Unless we can all come together under one big umbrella: the music business, politicians can’t do anything. And I don’t think we’re gonna do that, so I don’t think they’re gonna fix it and I don’t think that the fix is a political fix anyway. The problem is technology and technology  can fix technology. The miracle is that this technology is being developed by someone who wants to give the money back to the songwriters, whose heart is in the right place.

That’s the miracle—is that Chris Mac’s heart is in the right place and he wants the writers to get paid. That is a big deal. That’s earth-shattering. That’s a deal changer. For anyone who picks up a guitar and writes a song, it’ll change their life. This can really become the standard."

Chris Mac is Chris McMurtry, who's profiled in part one of the series. He's a Nashville native and a musician/composer himself. Mary Gauthier concluded our conversation with enthusiasm about the prospects for DART  enabling the core convictions of Music City. 

"It’s a Nashville story because it’s a songwriter town. And what a beautiful thing for the songwriter town to fix the songwriter nightmare, which is a threat of complete and total unemployment because of the devaluation of our work. To bring the money back to the songwriter would—it’s just poetry that it happens in Nashville. It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing."

Or it could be. In a future episode, I'll look at some of the obstacles to implementation of these seemingly elegant solutions. How soon that all-seeing artist dashboard for all her works is a reality is open to debate.