Neelie and the Collecting Societies

I was in Brussels last week for a meeting with Neelie Kroes. As Vice President of the Commission, she is undoubtedly a powerhouse in Europe, but she is down to earth, pragmatic and determined to get the right thing done. Her spacious, airy office, magnificently decorated with contemporary Dutch art, evokes the feeling of modern, twenty first century policy-making at its most vibrant and transparent.  It stands in stark contrast to the musty panelling of  other more ancient systems like the UK’s Westminster.

There were  six of us, a Dutch technologist, a delegation from the Featured Artists Coalition and two representatives of Younison, a European artists and authors organisation.  We sat around her glass table with the senior members of her Cabinet to discuss ways in which collecting societies might be improved upon and made more transparent. Issues of governance were discussed, as well as questions arising out of the need to collectively license across all rights not sub-sets of rights.

One of the interesting  aspects of the shift to digital is  the analogue separation of the publishing and recording right in music. This  was done to make more money for the then new technology-empowered recording rights holders. It is now clearly so inefficient and acts as so much of a disincentive to new businesses and potential licensees of music, that many believe it would make more money if those rights were bundled back together again. Ms Kroes has clearly taken this point on-board – as well as recognising the frequent degree of detachment of the recording right owners from any interest in the daily work  and livelihoods of the creators themselves.

Another aspect of this modernisation effort is that the collecting societies were set up because of a shared belief that collective rights management for licensing of consumer services was likely to be more efficient than individual rights owners managing it. Broadcasters and other mass users of music were not about to go striking individual licenses with individual rights owners, if they could avoid it. National and network broadcasters in Europe especially have demanded collective licensing if creators are to get paid.

But in lots of parts of Europe, creators suggest, the collecting societies have not been able (or willing?) to keep up with the times. Many argue that they have not collaborated to be more efficient or to make it easier for customers to do business with them.  Independent observers have commented that the societies have not tried very hard to bring together the management of publishing and recording rights. Others point out that they have not sought to form Boards that are truly and proportionately representative of their membership (except in a few cases in the UK and the Netherlands).  And the technologically savvy are frustrated that they have not tried to use much technology to make their tracking more accurate and move away from a sampling of performances and a pro rata payment scheme which favours the biggest artists,  towards a proper tracking system that could pay creators for actual plays.

The data is available and the technology has been well tested over the last ten years but critics observe, even the PPL, regarded  by many as one of the more progressive societies, has only just in the last year or so started to consider using media play tracking technology – in a pilot scheme.

Neelie Croes wants to see all this modernised and wants to see much fairer remuneration for creator members of collecting societies. She seems to have a fight on her hands though. The lobbyist power of the major labels and publishers who sit behind the collecting societies and the societies themselves make it hard to enforce change. Monsieur Barnier who is one of her other commissioners who is tasked with writing the directive on the subject, has delayed its publication by a year. The Collecting Societies argue that there is nothing that needs fixing, that they don’t need regulation and that they can put their own house in order.

The European Repertoire Database, a project of the Commission, has been underway for sometime but still has failed to embrace both publishing and recorded work data.

Progress is undoubtedly possible here,  but it will require a lot more political will than is demonstrated currently by anyone – except perhaps by Ms Kroes herself – and given her track record for making the Telco’s drop extortionate roaming charges and forcing Microsoft to compensate for the monopolistic  bundling of Internet Explorer with Windows – she is a force to be reckoned with – as well as a great collector of artworks – and political trophies!


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