In the current state of the music industry there is little to no barrier to entry for aspiring artists. With the emergence of various technologies musicians have the ability to create anywhere. An artist can utilize technology such as digital audio workstations, portable microphones, MIDI controllers, and digital distribution services. While all these things allow an artist the capacity to create and reach an audience, there are still a number of factors that need to be taken into account. In personal experience working with up-and-coming artists, there is a clear problem present regarding their knowledge of the industry they hope to break into. There are essential elements about the music industry that all artists should know, allowing them the success they hope to achieve. The information is readily available across numerous websites but is often difficult to come across if one does not know exactly what to look for. Due to this, we aspire to create an informational web service, Layman's Music, dedicated to educating aspiring artists and musicians.
There proves to be a market for this type of service and a prevalent example has recently surfaced. Artist Juice WRLD and producer Nick Mira made headlines recently when musical legend Sting made a threat of legal action against them for their song “Lucid Dreams.” The production by Nick Mira features an interpolation of Sting's 1993 track “Shape of my Heart.” While Sting initially had praise for the interpretation of his song that attitude soon changed and Mira took to Twitter to share some thoughts about the artist (Coleman II, 2018). Sting has since allegedly taken 85 percent of “Lucid Dreams,” which is not clear whether that is publishing or earned profits thus far (Coleman II, 2018). Upon reading comments regarding the issue, there is a clear lack of knowledge about the legal process of creating music. Conflicts like this happen all the time in the music industry, and it has never been more crucial to have a firm grasp on the concepts at play. Although there is a low barrier to entry that is no excuse for artists to not follow proper procedure when it comes to creating using samples or interpolation. While “Lucid Dreams” served as a breakout track and made a name for both the artist and producer it is clear that they had little to no knowledge about the legal issues they presented themselves with upon interpolation. In the digital era, an artist can breakout at any moment and they must be prepared for the business of the music industry at any given time.
Through an education in Drexel University's Music Industry Program, we are fortunate to be in the position to learn about the various aspects of the music industry. However, we are aware that this is a privilege that not everyone has access to. Much of how the industry operates can be quite complicated and, without experienced professors to break it down, it can be hard to understand for the average person. With the Layman's Music website, our goal is not only to supply information, but also to present it in a way that is helpful and easy to understand. In order to accomplish this, we have focused on six main topics to dissect; music publishing, copyrights, royalties, distribution, Performance Rights Organizations (PROs), and education programs. By breaking down these categories, basic information is made more digestible and easier to present. The presentation of this content is key to the effectiveness of our platform. We have made it a priority to create a simple, user friendly interface with the help of our web designer. We believe this, along with search engine optimization strategies, can make this platform the easiest and most intuitive music industry source to find and learn from. By analyzing the few other websites that attempt to do this, we have determined what is good, what is bad, and what will work the best. The question is, can Layman's Music prove to be a resource superior to the rest? Informed by our research, it is more than possible.
Prior to putting together plans to move forward with the creation of our platform it was important to research the existing market. While researching we came across a website, The Music Maze. This is a service that bares similarities to what we ultimately hope to create but there are aspects that differ greatly. The Music Maze is essentially a blog featuring numerous posts that touch on a wide range of topics related to the music industry. The website content has some significant credibility as the creator is an active musician and industry professional, Isaac Shepard. An admirable aspect is that the service is completely free to users and features no advertisements. Instead it gives users the opportunity to donate a monthly subscription to support its operations. While this website could be seen as a competitor, we consider it to be a reference of how we hope to differentiate our own service as there are a number of features that we would improve and implement.
One of the most important aspects of a website like this is that it has to be super user-friendly. The problem we are trying to solve comes from the convoluted way that information tends to be presented in various sources. If our website is not thoughtfully designed with the user in mind, we are just adding to the mess. Kay Singh, of Social Media Today, lists the most important characteristics of a user-friendly website. The first of which, is having a well-planned information architecture or “IA” (Singh 2013). Your IA most prominently addresses how information is organized. There are two key components of organization which are the schemes and structures of the layout. Organization schemes have to do with how you categorize content (Gee 2013). There are exact schemes and subjective schemes, and we have decided that a subjective scheme, specifically a topic scheme, is the most effective way to present our content. A topic scheme is when content is organized based on a specific subject matter. Next, we have to address the organizational structure of the site which is how we define the relationships between pieces of content. Hierarchical structures take a top down approach where information starts very broad and users can dive deeper and deeper into specifics. Sequential structures are exactly how it sounds where there is a one after another specific path through the content. Finally, a matrix structure which allows a user to create their own path because pieces of content are linked in multiple ways (Gee 2013). This is the ideal structure for us because there are many places where various topics overlap. There is no hierarchical or sequential logic that makes one topic supersede another, but there are plenty of times where one topic might reference another.
Another component that goes hand in hand with IA is effective navigation. As mentioned before, content overlaps in many ways and it is crucial for users to be able to move from page to page fluidly. Any kind of cluttered redirection is frustration that is not needed. In 2003, D.R. Donaldson found that the most effective system is one that keeps all menus and redirectional links in the same format from page to page. He found that users report a “disorienting” experience when links don't look the same on the destination page as they did on the source page (Gee 2013). Consistency is of high priority when creating the layout of this site. On top of that, the labels we choose for various links and pages must be clear. All of the work put in to create a consistent and intuitive layout is meaningless if the links are ambiguous and hard to follow anyway. Simple HTML links will be used as they tend to work best and appear consistently across all browsers. Additionally, when presenting large amounts of information at once, it is imperative that the content is “scannable.” The average internet user will skim a web page rather than read every single word in order to quickly determine if the content is relevant to their needs. With that in mind, we will need to include appropriate headings, sub-headings, bullets, and lists in order to break up the text and make it easy for readers to digest (Singh 2013). Finally, a contrasting color scheme is far more crucial than some might expect. It is one of the most basic yet most important concepts when designing a website. Lack of contrast between the background of the page and the content makes it difficult to read. The last thing we want is for people to be immediately disoriented upon opening our site. Every bit of these organizational and aesthetic decisions will be thoughtfully pursued with the user in mind.
Beyond the look and organization of the website is an even more important task, getting people to the site. Search engine optimization (SEO) is critical to the success of any website and can help garner a significant amount of visitors, more so than any marketing campaign could do. SEO can be a very complex endeavor, but there are basics that everyone should understand when creating a website in order to better position themselves. When search engines are generating appropriate responses to whatever a user has searched, they scan websites for relevant information, a process known as “crawling.” Results are collected based on relevance and then ranked by popularity. In order to perform better and be recognized by search engine crawlers, the most important content on a site should be in HTML text format. Images, flash files, and other non-text files are often devalued or ignored despite advances in crawler technology (Fishkin 2014). In order to improve a site's “crawlability” it's smart to provide text descriptions attached to images. There are tools one can use, once the site is up and running, to see what elements of content are visible to search engines. The closer your actual image of the web page is to the search engine's view of it the better.
The use of keywords is the foundation of how search engines work in the first place. It is important to identify what key words and phrases relate the most to your site. A good way to determine key words is to think about what you would want to search in order to find your site. In our case, words like; music publishing, music business, copyrights, royalties, etc. would be the main focus of our site. In order to make that more apparent to search engines, it is smart to make sure those keywords are used prominently in headings, text, and metadata. It is noteworthy to mention that keywords can be abused. Machine reading has gotten very advanced and can decipher if the use of a keyword is actually relevant to the context. Overusing keywords where they are forced and unnecessary can actually be counterproductive. For the best results, keywords should be used naturally and strategically. With that being said, there are some guidelines to follow, laid out by Moz.com, to optimize the placement of a keyword. It should be present once in the title tag of the page, once prominently near the top of the page, at least two or three times, including variations, throughout the body of the page, at least once in the description of an image if used, and once in the URL. In regards to title tags, these can also be optimized. A proper title tag is an accurate, concise description of a page's content and is equally important to the user's experience as it is to SEO. Search engines only display the first 65-75 characters of a title, so it is important to be mindful of length and also to include keywords as close to the beginning as possible. When multiple pages on a website include the same information, or if there are multiple versions of the same page, it causes search engines to have to decide which page is the original and can potentially rank lower than it should. An effort will be made on our part to avoid any duplication and to combine pages that end up showing similar content, if that becomes an issue, in order to eliminate competition between the two and also create stronger relevancy (Fishkin 2014).
Search engine optimization is not a one off process that takes place when you are building a website, it's a progressive effort to continuously improve. To effectively optimize your website you need to keep track of your performance and make improvements. Some key metrics to track include, direct navigation, referral traffic, and search traffic. It's very useful to know how people are finding your site. Are they typing in your URL directly? Are they finding a link to your site from another webpage or from a promotional email? Are they finding you through a search engine? Determining which pages on the site get the most attention can be very helpful and can determine which keywords are more effective and should be emphasized. It can also prove useful to regularly track the volume of contribution from each search engine relative to their market share. If we find we are not performing as well as we'd like, we can use the strategies laid out to rework some of our content and hopefully observe improvements. By researching these various technological aspects associated with building our service, we aim to create a platform that will best benefit our users. It is imperative that our service is easy to use as there is a substantial amount of information we hope to have users fully comprehend.
There are many aspects of the music industry that any active participant should be aware of. However, we chose to simplify our website into providing the information that is absolutely essential for songwriters and artists. Creatives should have the ability to profit off of their work which is often a difficult task for up-and-coming artists. There are certain steps that must be taken to ensure the songwriter is properly compensated for their share of a musical composition. While this may be daunting, we hope to clarify the various aspects and the importance of doing so.
The first step any songwriter and artist should take is to affiliate with a performance rights organization (PRO). Royalty Exchange defines PROs as, “organizations that license, collect and distribute public performance royalties for songwriters and publishers” (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). Songwriters have the ability to collect royalties when their music is broadcasted on the radio, used in television or films, performed or streamed live, and streamed on digital platforms (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). An often overlooked aspect of performance royalties is music performed or streamed live in establishments such as bars, restaurants, and performance venues. The PRO ensures that all venues using music in their operations have proper licensing to do so. In addition, they collect associated royalties, track who has paid, and determine the appropriate composer, publisher, and songwriter entitled to those royalties (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). Furthermore, the PRO will organize a list of where music was played allowing the artist to associate the royalties to a location (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). In the United States there are three major PROs, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. While they have their differences they all share a common goal, ensuring fair compensation (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac).
For a songwriter and artist selecting a PRO is primarily a matter of preference. They all have a variety of benefits to offer making it all come down to what best fits someone's needs. However, all three are not always an option for all who hope to affiliate. SESAC, the only for-profit private company among the “Big Three”, only allows membership upon invitation (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). There is no membership cost for SESAC and they pay out royalty checks quarterly similarly to both ASCAP and BMI. In addition, SESAC provides the option for members to receive radio royalty payments on a monthly basis (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). While SESAC has a wide range of benefits for its members, it is not an option available for aspiring songwriters and artists. Although there are the “Big Three” PROs in the United States, creatives in the beginning stages essentially have the option of choosing between ASCAP and BMI.
ASCAP is a not-for-profit organization and is the oldest PRO among the “Big Three” (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). The business structure differs as the control lies among the composers, writers and music publishers that make up the organization (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). The cost associated with membership is $50 for affiliation for both songwriters and publishers (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). The key differences among ASCAP and BMI are the fees associated with registration. BMI allows songwriters to gain membership for free while they charge for publishers. For publishers, it costs $150 for individuals and $250 for publishing companies (Ascap vs bmi vs sesac). When selecting a PRO, music publishing is an aspect that a songwriter should take into account. The role of PROs and music publishers go hand-in-hand in terms of the performance royalties. Due to the high volume of these royalties, publishers and songwriters register with a PRO to collect on their behalf. Music publishing is an important aspect of the industry and it is alarming when an artist does not understand the basics. As we set out to create this platform, we aim to provide a simple but thorough explanation of a major aspect of the industry, music publishing.
The publishing sector of the music industry has existed long before the introduction of digital music. Prior to the sale of recorded music, music publishers primarily earned income from the sales of sheet music. However, in modern times musical compositions and recordings can be exploited in various forms of media (Batten, 2010). Regarding songwriters and publishers Batten states, “The contractual relationship between a songwriter or music composer and a music publisher, whereby the writer assigns part or all of his or her music copyrights to the publisher in exchange for the publisher's commercial exploitation of the music” (Batten, 2010). In the case of a songwriter, the publishing company would seek out opportunities for a performer to record a musical work. Furthermore, a publisher will look to exploit the copyright of the musical composition by seeking placements in film, television, and advertisements (Batten, 2010). The publisher will also assume the responsibilities of collecting royalties for those musical compositions under their control. The sector of music publishing is primarily governed by United States copyright law and negotiated through private contractual agreements (Batten, 2010). Due to the complexity of its nature, it is important that songwriters fully understand the nature of a publishing deal should they receive the opportunity.
Often times a songwriter will seek out a publishing deal as they feel that is the pinnacle of a music career. While the concept sounds glamorous many aspiring songwriters are unaware of the elements associated with a publishing deal. As previously stated, a publishing deal often involves the assignment of copyright in exchange for royalties received from the exploitation of the songs. Furthermore, a publisher can provide co-writing opportunities associated with their existing industry contacts (Goldmacher, 2010). As there are with many aspects of life, there are pros and cons with pursuing and signing a publishing deal.
For many aspiring songwriters it is difficult to be able to write music full time if there is no money to live off. This is where the advantage of a publishing deal comes into play with the monthly draw. The monthly draw is an advance against a writer's royalty under the agreement with the publisher. While sometimes this may allow a songwriter to have enough income to write full time often it provides enough for them to only require a part-time job, leaving more time to write music (Goldmacher, 2010). Furthermore, the publishers will often provide funding to get high quality recordings of demos which is a cost songwriters usually would be unable to afford (Goldmacher, 2010). Another perk comes with song pluggers, employees of the publisher who are dedicated to finding opportunities for songs in the catalog. Utilizing existing relationships in the industry with record labels, producers, and artists, song pluggers will pitch a writer's songs (Goldmacher, 2010).
Although these are some benefits of working with a publisher, these aspects also feature the drawbacks of a publishing deal. The money associated with a writer's draw and demo budget are essentially loans that the publisher will make back once a song begins to bring revenue into the company. In addition, once the original investment has been recouped the publisher will still continue to own the publishing of a song and have the ability to profit from it (Goldmacher, 2010). In regards to song pluggers, it is not guaranteed that they will prioritize a specific artists songs. Generally, those put in these positions are working with a large catalog when considering various pitch opportunities (Goldmacher, 2010). While it is valuable that a songwriter has someone working in this capacity to exploit their publishing, they have to understand the reality behind it. The intention of providing these details is to inform aspiring songwriters and artists about the aspects of a publishing deal that are not commonly known. It is important for those who enter into these agreements to understand the details of publishing deals as those rights are an important aspect of an artists career.
There are two common types of publishing deals; co-publishing deal and a publishing administration deal (Eames, 2013). Prior to pursuing one of these deals it is important for those involved to understand the details of these agreements. In the co-publishing deal, a songwriter shares the ownership with another individual or entity (Eames, 2013). The songwriter assigns 50 percent of their publishing in exchange for monetary compensation, received in the form of an advance or a draw (Eames, 2013). Associated with these deals are typically a set of obligations that a songwriter is required to fulfill. A songwriter must write a minimum amount of 100 percent songs that the entity finds adequate for their purposes. Along with this, any co-written songs only count for the share that the songwriter has retained. For example, a songwriter would need to co-write two songs of which they own 50 percent in order to fulfill a song requirement under the publishing deal (Eames, 2013). While a co-publishing deal requires a songwriter to assign partial ownership, the administration deal differs greatly. With an administration deal a songwriter keeps 100 percent of ownership while pursuing a third party entity to oversee administrative duties for their songs copyrights (Eames, 2013). Rather than giving up a percentage of ownership, a songwriter will give up a percentage of both domestic and foreign income in exchange for these services (Eames, 2013). In some cases, the administration deal involves no creative services. If the entity does in fact have a creative department, the songwriter may have access to a team seeking placements for their work. However, when creative services are provided and a placement is secured then the songwriter typically provides a higher percentage of the revenue (Eames, 2013). There are clear differences when it comes to the two main types of publishing deals a songwriter could obtain. It is certainly a case by case basis specific to each songwriter in regards to what the best fit would be surrounding their publishing operations. Music publishing is an aspect of the music industry that is heavily reliant on copyright law. This sector of law can be complex at times but it is an essential part of the industry for creatives.
The overall concept of copyright law may seem daunting but there are basics that are important for all songwriters and artists to be aware of. The first thing all creatives should be aware of is the fact that copyright protection is present at the creation of a musical work. According to the US Copyright Office, the creation occurs when the work is “fixed in a tangible form” (Kaminsky, 2010). Although copyright protection is present immediately, it is not enforceable unless the creator registers with the US Copyright Office. Registering allows the copyright holder the ability to enforce their rights should legal action ever be necessary (Kaminsky, 2010). The rights established by copyright ownership includes; to reproduce, to adapt or arrange, to perform, to display, distribute, or sell copies, incorporate with visual media, and to license others the ability to perform any of the associated rights (Kaminsky, 2010).
The protection of a copyright currently lasts for 70 years past the life of the owner. Furthermore, if there are multiple owners associated with a copyright, the protection will last 70 years following the death of the final living owner (Kaminsky, 2010). A particularly important aspect of copyright last is the fact that there are two copyrights present among one musical work. These two copyrights are the musical composition and the sound recording. Sound recordings mainly are copyrighted separately from a musical composition due to copyright law not considering them to be the same work (Kaminsky, 2010). A beneficial aspect of copyright law comes with the fact that a musical work does not have to be published in order to be protected. Even if a creator has an unpublished piece of work, they still have the ability to register to ensure protection (Kaminsky, 2010). A large aspect of the current music industry is the recording and release of covers online. Those who wish to cover copyrighted song are required to pay a set rate to acquire a mechanical license. The mechanical license grants the licensee the ability to reproduce and distribute the copyrighted musical composition (Kaminsky, 2010). However, this does not allow for licensees to include the works in a video. Due to this, those involved should be aware of the possibility of needing to obtain a synchronization license (What is a mechanical license?). This is an important aspect to note as many aspiring musicians begin their careers by posting cover videos on platforms such as YouTube. All of these concepts are the main points for creators in copyright law, an aspect that rarely sees any change. There have been calls for change in the music legislation for some time as the most recent updates dated back 40 years. With an industry that has primarily shifted to a digital environment it was essential for change surrounding compensation and rights for musical creatives. After years of pushing for music licensing reform it finally became a reality this year with the passing of the Music Modernization Act.
On October 11, 2018 the Music Modernization Act was signed into law. This served as the largest update to music legislation in the past 40 years impacting creators of the past, present, and future (Music modernization act). While the new bill is lengthy, there are a few aspects that highlight the major changes the music industry will benefit from. First and foremost the new law establishes fair compensation for both artists and songwriters when the government sets the rates. Furthermore, for songwriters, a new and transparent collection entity is established to guarantee that songwriters a fairly compensated when digital services use their works (Music modernization act). A big victory comes for artists of the past with the law requiring digital services to pay for the use of songs recorded and released prior to 1972. These recordings were not subject to protection under previous copyright law (Davis, 2018). Another large change is the ability for producers and engineers who worked on a record to receive copyright protection (Music modernization act). This opens the ability for producers and engineers to receive royalties when those recordings are played on online and satellite radio platforms (Davis, 2018). There are many ways that an artist can earn revenue that are associated with specific types of royalties. It is important for an artist to have a general understanding of the royalties at hand to ensure that they will be fairly compensated.
Previously we covered the topic of performance royalties as it relates to the performance rights organizations collecting them on behalf of a songwriter. To reiterate, these are the fees associated with the public performance of a copyrighted work (Music royalties guide). SoundExchange serves as an organization collecting the recording performance royalties when a work is performed publicly on a digital platform. This is only subject to digital performance due to terrestrial radio not required to pay royalties to artists but only the songwriters of a work (Music royalties guide). However, digital services such as Pandora are required to pay out both recording and songwriting royalties (Music royalties guide). While an artist or songwriter will not be required to track their own royalties, these are important aspect to keep in mind. This provides an understanding of the industry and how one's royalties are determined and collected on their behalf.
Another primary source of income in the music industry is the mechanical royalty. According to Royalty Exchange, “Mechanical royalties paid to songwriters and artists when music is licensed but also when music is streamed ‘on-demand'” (Music royalties guide). The songwriting mechanical royalties are set by the government and is currently at a rate of 9.1 cents per copy. Due to digital services not conforming to traditional music consumption, they are required to pay performance royalties and mechanical royalties to both songwriters and artists (Music royalties guide). Additionally, those who hold the copyright for a master recording have the ability to collect royalties for the use of that particular song. They are able to collect upon these when the master recording is used for things such as visual media and on streaming services (Music royalties guide). These royalties are typically paid in addition to any associated synchronization or public performance royalties. This is due to those licenses only allowing for the use of the song from the publisher and not for a specific song recording which is usually owned by a record label (Music royalties guide). Although royalties are a task typically handled by a third party entity on behalf of a songwriter or artist, it is beneficial for creatives to have the basic knowledge of how their income is generated. This is among one of the various topics that are essential in the protection of a creatives livelihood. While some of these concepts may initially be difficult to grasp, we aim to create a service that will simplify the information for quick and easy comprehension.
Layman's Music is a website, a user-friendly resource, and a tool we hope can guide aspiring artists to success, but ultimately it is a business. We are designed for educational purposes, and under the guidelines set forth by the IRS, that potentially enables Layman's Music to be registered as a non-profit organization. Our main source of revenue at the time of launch and early stages of the website will be solely based on advertisements. The target advertisers include universities and educational programs that we intend to highlight on the website as well as distributors like Distrokid, Tunecore, and CDbaby. As we learn more about our user base there are additional potential opportunities with other music related companies like instrument retailers, streaming services, venues, etc. As we grow our audience, there is also the possibility to expand Layman's Music outside of the website and offer events and seminars around the country which would not only expand the brand, but serve as an additional revenue source. The only way our website can gain the traction needed to pursue these revenue sources is with a strong marketing campaign. A plan involving social media, online advertising, and grassroots marketing will continue to be developed along with research of where exactly our target market lies.
That brings us to the discussion of expenses. With a web-designer friend partnering with us for free, our costs are relatively low. The only current costs we can foresee are advertising fees, hosting the website, possibly purchasing a domain name, and holding some sort of launch party. If the site grows like we intend it to, additional costs may include a service to help with SEO, additional employees to maintain and update content, and continual marketing/advertising fees.
Informed by our research, we are preparing to make Layman's Music a resource that has not existed in the history of the music business. Through simplified and digestible content presented on a user-friendly, intuitive interface, artists everywhere will have access to the knowledge necessary to achieve their dreams. We will utilize effective SEO practices as well as targeted marketing in order to grow our user base and expand the Layman's Music brand. Beyond that, the possibilities are endless as to how we can aide musicians in their navigation of the industry and we intend to explore every option.
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