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Molly Neuman (Songtrust): ‘We can talk about Web3 but we are still trying to solve Web1 problems’

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If there was one companies that exemplifies the massive changes in the global music landscape, it would have to be Downtown Music Holdings-owned global publishing administration service Songtrust. The company has been at the forefront of the wave of empowerment of independent songwriters and artists by offering them tools to manage on a global basis their copyrights.

Songtrust is the brainchild of Downtown Music Holdings Chairman Justin Kalifowitz and Joe Conyers — who has since left the company to join Hong Kong-headquartered Crypto.com as EVP, Global Head of NFTs.

The idea behind the project was to provide tools for songwriters and small publishing companies to manage their catalogues and reap the benefits of the digital revolution.

Today Songtrust represents more than 350,000 songwriters from 145 countries and is one of the world’s largest administrator of music rights, with over three million works in its systems, and it has a global footprint, reaching out to over a hundred rights societies around the world.

In October 2021, Songtrust unveiled a new logo and brand system to coincide with the company’s tenth anniversary. That re-branding was part of the strategy from Molly Neuman, President of Songtrust, to represent the company’s commitment to educating, empowering, and serving music rights holders.

Neuman has been President of Songtrust since 2019, ascending to her position after two years in the company. She joined from A2IM, the organisation representing independent labels in the US. Neuman has always been working in or with the independent sector, holding positions within independent music companies (Lookout Records), as well as digital services (eMusic, Rhapsody, Kickstarter).

The company disclosed that in 2020 it added 23,216 new songwriters, a 59% increase over 2020, and that it onboarded 437,429 new songs and added 518,864 new ISRCs, bringing to 73% the number of total ISRC coverage of the Songtrust catalogue.

In 2021, Songtrust also processed 162 million lines of royalty data. Over the year, Songtrust experienced a 75% increase in royalties collected over 2020, and an 83% increase in the number of payments made compared to 2020.

Creative Industries News — which interviewed Neuman in January 2020 — did a catch-up with Neuman to talk about the past two years and how the future is shaping up for the company.

You’ve had quite a good run in the past two years, haven’t you?

Molly Neuman: It’s been over two years since I became President in November 2019. A lot has changed in the company’s culture. I had then a different mandate — we had to grow business. When I joined in 2017, nobody had heard of the company. Joe Conyers was talking about new ways to support songwriters and Justin [Kalifowitz] was talking about what we were trying to achieve. And think about the context: CBR III had just been announced, the MMA [Music Modernisation Act] was on track, and there was a lot of momentum around that effort, the alliance SONA-NSAI [Songwriters of North America-Nashville Songwriters Association International] and NMPA [National Music Publishers’ Association] was kicking off, and we had the setting up of the MLC [Mechanical Licensing Collective]. All this was germinating and starting to shake the market. At Songtrust, we were building a team and growing the offer. In fact, we grew consistently and making our pitch was rather fortuitous since songwriting and royalties for songwriting became a centralised topic for our industry. It’s interesting because for a long time, most people kept at arm’s length from publishing and royalties. It was antiquated, it had data issues and traditional publishing was organised in a complicated way. That discussion was changing. In parallel, in 2019 and 2020 was had the start of the big wave into catalogue sales. The journey of our company has been taking place alongside these industry discussions.

What did you focus on when you were appointed President?

Molly Neuman: When I came to lead the company, I had to evaluate what worked and what did not. We had lots of songs and had affiliations with PROs and digital licensing hubs. The volume continued to grow and put constraints on these systems. Our volume was challenging for certain entities and organisations, mostly organised around top 10% earners. But we have enough activity to claim royalties. We also have local repertoire that gets usage that is significant enough to generate sums. We had to think about what we were doing but we had to do it during the pandemic. I am pleased that even with the pandemic, we have been able to add to the organisation a strong group of experts to help us design and think about the way we should take the company into the future. What we have achieved makes me feel even prouder under these circumstances. 

How did it translate effectively?

Molly Neuman: In the summer of 2020, we added a layer of tech leadership with the arrival of Darren Briggs, a mathematician who worked formerly for Sony ATV and BMI. He grew in that environment and was part of the team that launched Shazam. He has a unique perspective — he knows about standards, compliance, constraints that we have to manage through and the local rules that we operate within. In the past year he built an infrastructure and at the end of last year he accepted the challenge to lead the copyright team and the royalty team and try to harmonise our processes. One of the realities of publishing and one of the problems we face is that it is truly not possible to fully automate processes. There is always a human factor. We were also able to hire other executives such as Virginie [Berger, Songtrust’s SVP, Global Publishing & Society Relations] who brings a set of expertise in international rights. Part of what I did in the past two years was to enter another phase. We have been building from our foundations and we have been adding extra zones of knowledge to inform us about the future.

How did Covid impact you?

Molly Neuman: From a business perspective, performance rights were under pressure but we were in a better space because we are better aligned with digital and streaming. Our core business has not been impacted as much as that of traditional publishers with marquee stars who could not tour. It is positive to see that live music is back. Live royalties will be improving for certain songwriters. The pandemic made it difficult it to operate. I used to be on the road all the time and do things in person through relationships. On the plus side, I got to see more of my daughter.

How did the sale of the Downtown catalogue to Concord affect you?

Molly Neuman: It was certainly a large event from the point of view of Downtown. For Songtrust specifically, it changed a little bit the facts about our business. Songtrust has operated as the back office of Downtown Publishing since 2019 and we continued to operate in that way, while the company began to manage administration deals only and continued as one of our publishers in terms of administration.It was not a radical event for our infrastructure.

At the start of the year you published a lot of figures about Songtrust, but one key figures was missing — the volume of money going through Songtrust. Can you share that information?

Molly Neuman: We are a privately held company and we do not share these figures. All I can say is that the structure of the group has changed a lot. Songtrust is part of a group of companies which includes CD Baby, for example, and we added [independent distributor] FUGA and a few other companies, while expanding the profile of Downtown. All these companies generate a lot of revenue. 

How do you feel about the new digital environment?

Molly Neuman: It is interesting to see that there are a lot of news stories around changes. Obviously, on top of our mind is what’s happening around web3, the discussion about how to directly support creators via NFTs or other transactions using blockchain protocols or new solutions to support creativity. However, they are not on top of our agenda because we are still trying to solve web1 problems… We are dealing with infrastructure issues, we have to engage with organisations, such as the top 10 societies in terms of music markets and how they operate. They have to decide which resources to invest in infrastructure and data excellence that will set the standard for our engagement as an industry. Some countries do not have infrastructures in place and will never have the capability to invest. So this creates a whole new range of problems in all sort of ways. That said I feel comfortable with our business focus. If we earn royalties across the world, we will try to harmonise that and find solutions. I wasn’t in the business when the GRD [Global Repertoire Database] was discussed but we have to look at history and figure out if there is a new ideal scenario to solve these problems.

What is the profile of a Songtrust client?

Molly Neuman: Our core client profile is from the emerging creator class, usually self-released, who might have collaborated with others songwriters. Revenues for these clients have been improving, informed by the global growth of streaming platforms. Two years ago, when Spotify revealed the number of new tracks that were uploaded each day, it really took people by surprise. They were also opening new markets and they had a market entry strategy to grow users and customers. There’s more people making music and more places to go. There’s activity, and that’s where the royalties are earned. If you take them in aggregate, they are significant, and it is our responsibility to get them collected. We need to include different contributors to solve these problems and be strong partners to societies. It’s challenging but pretty energising. We are doing the hard work but it is a necessary work.

What’s Songtrust’s relationship with societies around the world?

Molly Neuman: We might not be their preferred meeting, but they have to talk to us [smiles]. Yes, we bring a lot of volume, but we operate with a volume of rights that is not too dissimilar to their own business. We try to be partners. I am very excited about the future, even if there are still problems to solve. It’s great to see new leadership in some places. I could not be more thrilled to see Cécile [Rap-Veber] be the CEO of SACEM. Her agenda for the future is aligned with ours. They can be the leaders in solving problems. Changes and new mandates can be healthy. We have a lot of legacy interests who are implementing changes, so I have cautious optimism. It depends on people. Some are resistant to radical transformation so we need to have a conversation around the societies’ network. Let’s commit to improvements with what is there, and we have to identify where there is resistance and what it means in terms of lost revenues.

You are one of the rare women President of a music company. What are your views on the issue of diversity?

Molly Neuman: The conversation on diversity and equality is necessary. If we can accept more voices and perspectives, it will yield a healthier music industry. I don’t see how we can argue against that. Now, it is a question of how do we invest in infrastructure to make sure we have a pipeline to leadership.

What’s your agenda for 2022-23?

Molly Neuman: We are here to help creators in an efficient and fair way. Our deals are for one year and flexibility is part of the core offer. It gives creators the opportunity to make changes if something comes along their paths. Songtrust does give them that flexibility. Now, publishing has become so much more sophisticated that we have to continue to grow how we present what we do. We have that direct relationships with societies and with digital services so our goal is to grow these relationships. We will also increase our presence in local markets and grow the pool of songwriters. We are focused on our global expansion and improving our service offering to meet the needs of our clients. There’s more activity, more usage and more royalties being earned by more people so we have to commit that these rights holders are going to be properly paid.

Emmanuel is a Washington, DC-based freelance journalist, blogger and media consultant, specialising in the entertainment business and cultural trends. He was the US editor for British music industry trade publication Music Week. Previously, he was the editor of Impact, a magazine for the music publishing community (2007-2009), the global editor of US trade publication Billboard (2003-2006), and the editor in chief of Billboard’s sister publication Music & Media (1997-2003).

Creative Industries

Main stories — Week 38, 2022

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Here's a list of the main stories published by Creative Industries News in the past week.

LEAD STORY>France’s music sector divided about a tax on streaming services to finance government-backed organisation CNM

COPYRIGHT & REGULATION> California governor Gavin Newsom signs the Decriminalising Artistic Expression Act> Former Register of Copyrights and champion for creators’ rights Marybeth Peters dies aged 83> IAEL to hold its Annual Meeting at the Amsterdam Dan...

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Creative Industries

France’s music sector divided about a tax on streaming services to finance government-backed organisation CNM

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The French music industry is divided about the ways to fund government-backed Centre National de la Musique (CNM), which provides a wide range of schemes to support the music sector.

One of the avenues explored to guarantee a steady and substantial financing has been a tax on the revenues of music streaming services. However, the tax — which would be in the region of 1.5% of DSPs' revenues — is not met with a consensus from the industry.

Strongly opposing the move is trade body SNEP, whi...

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Influence Media Partners acquires the recording catalogue of Blake Shelton

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New York-based music and entertainment company Influence Media Partners has invested in the master recordings catalogue of country music singer and songwriter Blake Shelton.

Terms of the deal were not disclosed. The agreement covers all of his commercial releases from 2001 to 2019, during which he accumulated 27 No. 1 singles on Billboard's Country Airplay chart and released f 11 studio LP's, including a Christmas album, and two EPs.

The two parties have also created a joint venture, par...

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