Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Special Report: Studio Musicians Are Still Waiting For Credit In The Streaming Era

Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, Royce DeGrie and Angela Smith
Studio musicians of years gone by get acclaim at the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville, but getting their names credited on their work where consumers stream their music has proven frustrating.

Dave Pomeroy is best-known as the genial president of Nashville’s Local 257 of the American Federation of Musicians, a position he’s held since 2009. But set that aside and focus on the fact that since the late 1970s, Pomeroy, now 68, has been one of Music City’s most prolific professional bass players. He toured or recorded with Don Williams, Chet Atkins, Trisha Yearwood, and many more. In fact, according to the union’s database of studio sessions, he’s played on more than 11,000 recorded songs since the late 1980s - and more before that.

But let’s go to the internet, where vast quantities of information are reportedly available to us. According to AllMusic, among the most complete and reliable sources for musician credits available free to consumers, Pomeroy has played on just 366 albums. It doesn’t count song-by-song, but if he’d played on all the tracks on all those albums (which rarely happens) he’d tally up at most about 4,000 tracks. Remove all the duplicate compilation listings, and the wrong number is even wronger. Still, AllMusic offers a reasonable record of the impact that Pomeroy’s prodigious career has had on music.

On the streaming services though, where we fans and casual listeners access music, Dave Pomeroy’s career nearly vanishes, even his history-making records with Alison Krauss and Keith Whitley. Depending on which streaming service you use, his resume is either woefully incomplete (200 total songs credited on Tidal) or just unavailable (Spotify).

The music industry has been promising music credits on the streaming services for more than a decade. They’re having another conference about it in Nashville this week, where some well-meaning people will once again discuss the nerdy, vexing challenge of “metadata.” To be fair, it’s not an easy problem, and the business can point to some progress. But this report finds that in a world where public-facing databases can track 20 million UPS packages a day, baseball career statistics from 100 years ago to last night, and millions of global Bitcoin transactions, musician credits remain incomplete and hard to access.

“It seemed like for a while, every six months, a new company would emerge, and say, Hey, we've got this whole metadata thing figured out, and everybody's gonna get credit,” Pomeroy told me. “And then no one, it seemed to me, could ever agree on what that format was going to be and how it was going to work. Intentionally or otherwise, musicians keep falling through the cracks.” Others in the business have said the same thing - that efforts by entrepreneurs and industry collectives have bogged down, even with the rise in the meantime of big data, machine learning, and the vaunted blockchain.

Music is a collective creation, and music hubs like Nashville got famous as they became magnets for superior musicianship. We celebrate studio musicians according to the scenes and sounds they created - like LA’s Wrecking Crew or Nashville’s A-Team. There’s a major museum downtown - the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum - where those very creators and others like them are celebrated and showcased. Americana fans have favorite pedal steel players, fiddlers and guitarists, and its national association gives anInstrumentalist of the Year Award. Bluegrass and jazz put particular emphasis on the contributions of all the players in each session. Both genres have a record of including those credits on physical recordings, as a good CD library can attest. In the digital era, paradoxically, it’s been harder.

If a musician of Pomeroy’s stature and professional credentials can’t see a reasonably accurate record of his monumental career discography on our music services, what hope does the current generation of Nashville’s working pickers, background singers, producers, and recording engineers have? To their frustration, rather little.

Kristin Weber actually was the AMA’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 2022, thanks to a body of work that over time has included sessions for Dolly Parton, Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, and scores of other artists up and down the spectrum of fame. She has been playing violin/fiddle and arranging string parts since moving from Boston to Nashville in 2008. Yet according to Tidal (the most complete of the streamers), she’s only played on 164 songs. Her work on Joy Oladokun’s acclaimed Proof Of Life album is credited, while her fiddling on Joshua Hedley’s breakout album Mr. Jukebox and Michaela Anne’s Desert Dove are missing. Meanwhile, on AllMusic, Weber’s work is duly noted on both albums.

“It would definitely be fairer for the streaming services to list the credits really thoroughly,” Weber says, diplomatically. “The ability for someone to easily pause a song and find out who's playing that violin line right there without having to do a lot of digging would definitely lead to me and other musicians at least getting props, and also possibly work.”

Not to mention income for projects they’ve played on already, but we’ll get to that.

"Unfortunately we're still talking about the same stuff, and it's really frustrating,” says Chris McMurtry, one of the nation’s most proactive champions of good music metadata going back more than a decade. “One reason is the general life cycle of a startup (company) that's focused on it. You'll start to make change, and you die, and the next company comes along to make clean data, and they die. Without adoption by the major labels at scale, it winds up being the same old, same old."

McMurtry’s own data-focused startup DART, which we profiled here in 2017, struggled to tackle the hydra-like problem and was ultimately absorbed into a large data company that shifted its database and machine learning skills to other industries.

Today, we see market players like Jaxsta, an Australian company founded in 2015 that won last year’s Master of Metadata award at Music Biz, the conference that’s taking place in Nashville starting May 13. Jaxsta Product Lead Ben Orme told me that the company collects metadata from scores of record labels, music publishers, distributors and industry associations. It has data-sharing partnerships with all the major labels and more than 380 other labels and music distribution entities, including Nashville’s Third Man Records, Compass Records, and almost every indie you can think of.

Musicians have homepages there that act like a blend of LinkedIn and the Internet Movie Database, with deep and authenticated information about their history as players, producers, mixers and more. The downside is that it’s a business-to-business solution, so we consumers can’t look up our favorite contributors. Musicians themselves can manage and update their credits page via an app from Jaxta’s sister service Vampr for an annual fee of $199.

“Credits are everything to a music professional in the digital era of music. Without them, they become invisible,” Orme says by email about the company’s mission. “They are the CV, the calling card, the resume, which ultimately helps generate more work and build the profile of their career.” He points me to the Jaxsta page for Kacey Musgraves’s new album Deeper Well, with credits sent by UMG / Interscope Records/MCA Nashville for 16 songwriters, 3 producers, 2 production team members, 13 engineers and 11 performers. This matches what I see on Tidal, right down to the production coordinator.

If Jaxsta was the sole source and repository of industry data, we might have near perfect credits for all credible albums, but they are not. There is a complex network of overlapping databases that onboard the tens of thousands of new songs uploaded to the global cloud every day. Then there’s a century of historic credits data that’s more likely to live at AllMusic or on Wikipedia. Orme says he sees “positive signs (that) credit culture is growing.There is of course a way to go and it's complex, however I believe we are moving in the right direction.”

Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, Royce DeGrie and Angela Smith

Getting credits right starts in the recording studio and weaves through a chain of custody on its way to the music fan at the point of playback. It’s useful to touch each part of the journey to see where things can break down.

I called Jordan Hamilin, recording engineer, producer and proprietor of MOXE, a studio and creative retreat north of Nashville. She’s been part of Recording Academy initiatives on better crediting for years but sounds unhappy with the results. When she’s in charge of a session though, she does her best to get player credits delivered up the chain. “If it's a label project, I'm nerdily thorough about my crediting. Because I think it only hurts blue collar players and producers when we don't keep track of it,” she says. Hamlin uses a cloud-based database system called Airtable to transmit the information to her clients. “Whenever I'm sending it to the label, it's already done and correct and thorough.”

Labels send digital files and metadata to distributors, which feed the content to the streaming companies. You may have heard of TuneCore, DistroKid or CD Baby, and there are many others, including ones run by the major labels such as Sony-owned The Orchard. That’s the choice of pioneering, indie-driven Nashville music company Thirty Tigers, where VP of distribution Robert Knotts is in charge of making sure their projects get submitted properly. He says sometimes it can be hard to shake complete credit information out of some clients on deadline, especially indie artists who do their own administrative work. But The Orchard’s digital dashboard is impressive and always improving, he says, with data points for every kind of album contributor.

Knotts walks me through the data he entered for Jason Isbell’s Weathervanes album, which leads to an awkward moment. I check Apple Music, and there’s the full band - Chad Gamble on drums and percussion, Sadler Vaden on electric guitar and background vocals, and so forth. Then I check Tidal, my go-to service, and it’s only partially complete. The engineering, mixing and mastering is all credited, along with the song publishing information and “Lead Vocalist” Jason Isbell, but the band members are missing. “I’m shocked to hear that,” Knotts says, since all evidence shows he entered all the confirmed information passed to him by the label, Southeastern Records. But he’s not the only label-side credits master I spoke with who told me they can enter the information and double check it, only to find it missing at the critical point where fans press play.

“You can put the credits up but there’s absolutely no guarantee that they’ll flow through to Spotify for instance,” says John Heithaus, partner in Qualified Records here in Nashville, which releases music by Texas roadhouse artist Seth James and emerging blues prodigy Yates McKendree. “There’s a huge break in the chain. There’s no accountability. There’s no auditing. There’s no chance to fix it once it’s there. If they misspell a name, you can’t fix it. It’s in stone. You have to take the release down and redo it. Who’s going to do that, and lose all the spins? It’s really screwed up.”

The system at a meta-level, Knotts says, is still too complex with too many failure points. “The main hurdle I hear about is the largest players – the platforms as well as the rights holders – all approach this problem with a different solution. Universal and Warner, two of the biggest releasing companies on Earth, have systems that don’t talk to the services the same way, he says. “To get one to move toward the other is a massive challenge. It would require overhaul of systems that are decades old.”

At the end of the chain are what the industry calls the digital service providers, the tedious term for streamers. And all the DSPs have different attitudes toward credit. Spotify, the market leader with 31% of the audience, simply does not post musician credits, so forget about learning when Ron Carter played bass for Miles Davis or that Dave Coleman produced and played guitar on the most recent Amelia White album. The company added songwriter (but not musician) credits in 2018, which Hamlin says is due to the institutional and economic power of publishers. With so much money at stake, more stakeholders care about ubiquitous credit for who wrote the songs.

Moving on to Apple Music, the second biggest platform, musician credits finally became part of its ecosystem with an update a few months ago. Yet on the mobile app, while I can see that Dave Pomeroy played bass on Keith Whitley’s historic hit “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” it’s not cross-linked. I can’t click Dave’s name and see what else he’s credited with. That seems only to be possible right now on Qobuz, a boutique streamer aimed at audiophiles and melomaniacs, and Tidal, a service that’s often seen as doomed due to its slim market share. A recent price cut for Tidal’s high-resolution streaming tier may help it grow. Finally, YouTube Music, which has a complicated but hugely influential place in the digital business, does not credit musicians on albums, according to a friend who checked several significant recent releases.

Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, Royce DeGrie and Angela Smith

The case for credits is not just moral, or all about building a resume or being discoverable by fans. Bad or missing credits data affects musicians’ bottom lines too. In the American market, studio musicians generally get paid a flat fee for their three-hour blocks of time and their ideas and are then not eligible for royalties. They can however claim money from some performances overseas through a factor known as “neighboring rights”. Without getting in the weeds, in some markets all audible contributors to a record earn a small royalty for radio airplay, internet radio, satellite radio and other performances. Kristin Weber the fiddler said she tries to keep her credits updated on four different rights platforms to avail herself of the royalties to which she’s entitled, and that it’s a huge administrative hassle.

In truth, there was never a golden age when the record business comprehensively accounted for musician and production credits on recordings. The closest we came may have been the CD era, when some genres - particularly ones discussed here that are strong in Nashville like country and bluegrass - provided musician credits, often song by song. Most CD and LP releases still do. The internet was supposed to build on that and be searchable and linkable, and in some ways it has. Besides AllMusic, there’s a lot of good credits data on Wikipedia and the used record marketplace Discogs. Those are both crowd-sourced models, but in my research I’ve seen few if any references to integrating their data into a solution that can reach listeners where it would be most convenient and inspiring.

As for why the recording industry has been particularly stymied in linking credits metadata with the consumers who might use it, many observers pointed at the institutional inertia and financial priorities of the highly consolidated major music corporations.

“I have to choose my words carefully,” says David Pomeroy. “There are those who would say that for the most part, the record labels really don't want to have an accurate system, because it creates more responsibility on their end. I think that the loopholes in metadata have been very beneficial to those who would be compensating people if they had all that information.”

McMurtry, who is now vice president for product at ArtistWorks in Nashville, says he’s seen that too, through countless dealings with the industry’s top metadata experts. “To solve the credits problem, it has to be funded. It has to be legislated. It has to be bought into by the majors. However if they were to do that, it's a significant percent of their top line revenue coming from unmatched or unclaimed money. So if they solve this credits problem, it's going to cut into their revenue.”

That doesn’t mean the major labels are methodically erasing album contributors. A quick check of the recent Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Luke Combs albums on Tidal returns comprehensive information for example. And the major music companies have joined industry consortia to improve data, such as the non-profit standard-setting body Digital Data Exchange or DDEX. One is actually more likely to find sloppy or incomplete credits info on historic catalog albums and self-released records.

Still, to anyone who has used the modern internet, musician credit feels like an eminently solvable challenge. The rationale I’ve heard most often following this issue over a decade is that it’s a minor concern for the industry because only a small percentage of music consumers will care or bother to look up who played steel guitar here or saxophone there. And while that is true, it’s rarely acknowledged that those who are interested in that stuff are more likely to be tomorrow’s instrumentalists or music historians or tastemakers/influencers. Information is part of a healthy ecosystem. Authoritative credit has been an ethical priority and a value-add for any number of fields, spanning arts, academia, science and business. Now, in a time when artificial intelligence can be used to generate countless “recordings” that have no human musicians involved at all, the stakes are higher than ever for showing these musicians - who never asked to be the name on the marquee - that we know their names anyway.

Musicians Hall of Fame & Museum, Royce DeGrie and Angela Smith

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org