Recently, a musician signed to a large indie label announced that he owed up to $ 40,000 in royalty royalties that they could never collect. It wasn't that they had missed payments for a single number – it was that they had missed 70 numbers, at least six years ago.
The problem, they said, was metadata. In the music world, metadata most refers to the song credits you see with services such as Spotify or Apple Music, but it also contains all the underlying information associated with a released song or album, including titles, songwriter and producer names, the publisher (s) ), the record label and more. That information needs to be synchronized across a variety of company databases to ensure that when you play a song, the right people are identified and paid for. And often they are not.
Metadata sounds like one of the smallest, most boring things in music. But it appears that it is one of the most important, complicated and broken, making many musicians unable to get paid for their work. "Every second that passes and it's not resolved, I drop penny's & # 39; s," said the musician, who asked to remain anonymous because of "the consequences of even stating that this kind of thing is happening."
Entering the right information about a song sounds like it should be easy enough, but metadata problems have tormented the music industry for decades. Not only are there no standards for the way music metadata is collected or displayed, it is not necessary to verify the metadata accuracy of a song before it is released, and there is no place where music metadata is stored. Instead, fractions of that data are stored in hundreds of different places around the world.
The result is that the problem is much greater than a name being misspelled when you click on credits from a song on Spotify. Missing, bad or inconsistent song metadata is a crisis that remains, by some estimates, billions on the table that is never paid to the artists who have earned that money. And as the amount of music that is created and consumed grows faster and faster, it only gets messier.
It is crucial that metadata be accurately distributed and entered, not only for the findability of a song or album, but also because metadata send money directly to all people who created that music when a song is played, purchased or licensed given. Documenting everyone's work is also important because: "That attribution could be how someone gets their next performance," says Joshua Jackson, who directs business development for Jaxsta, an Australian company that verifies music information.
There are several ways in which this process can go wrong. The first is that because there is no standardized format for metadata, information is often discarded or entered incorrectly when it is noted or moved between people and databases.
The database of a label is probably different from the Spotify database, which is probably different from the databases of organizations for critical collections, such as ASCAP and BMI, which pay public royalties to musicians. "Part of the problem is that the fields that everyone has chosen to write in their software to fill these credits are all different," says entertainment attorney Jeff Becker of Swanson, Martin & Bell. "So if a credit is sent to a database named & # 39; Pro Tools Engineer & # 39; but that database doesn't have that field, they choose to change it or ignore it altogether. Usually they ignore it, and that credit cannot go anywhere. "
Every database has its own set of rules. If Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj and Jessie J worked together on a new track, and it was delivered to Apple Music with all their names in the same artist field, that would cause what Apple Music and Spotify a "composite artist mistake. "Entering an artist's name as" last name, first name "would also result in a rejection. There are ways to embed metadata in a song file to ensure that everything travels together, but generally distributors request to delete it because this can cause "upload problems".
The second major problem is that the information entered in the first place is often wrong. A song can be conducted by multiple songwriters, producers, and technicians before it is released by an artist, and each new contributor adds the potential to mess things up. The longer the monitoring chain for the data, the greater the chance that part of it is incorrect. A songwriter can bold a name in one of these databases, or a producer who was working for a short time could be omitted, or an incorrect combination between two databases could cause a technical error that erases information.
Even on one number, metadata can become complicated in ways you might not expect. In a guest post for HypeBot, Annie Lin, senior corporate lawyer at Twitch, uses Katy Perry's "Firework" to show how messy the data of a song can be. Capitol Records owns the recording for & # 39; Firework & # 39; but five different songwriters with five different music publishers own percentages of composition rights and all their information must be included in the metadata so that they can be credited and paid.
It's not uncommon for so many people to work on one song, says Niclas Molinder, founder of music metadata company Auddly (now session). In 2016, the average hit number had more than four songwriters and six publishers. This provides many opportunities for submitting metadata incorrectly. And if someone's credit is missing, misspelled or does not match the style guide of a streaming platform, then that can confuse the payments for all involved. All these minor errors add up. It is estimated that as much as 25 percent of royalty & # 39; s are not paid at all to publishers or paid to the wrong entity.
"You may get your data in your database correctly," Molinder says, "but if you don't find the others 100% correct, and if they don't get yours, nobody gets paid."
In an ideal world, once a song has been completed, the metadata would have been created by the artist or producer of the artist and would submit that data to the record label, distributor or publisher (s) for verification and distribution. In reality, the process is often more rushed and haphazard – artists and labels rush the process to get songs out, and metadata is often cleaned up later when errors are noticed. "Many of these credits and negotiations don't happen on a single piece of paper, but also afterwards," says Joe Conyers III, co-founder of Songtrust, a platform for digital rights management.
It is possible to correct errors in the metadata afterwards, but that depends on someone who catches that error and then corrects it in every database where it appears. Even if it is repaired, that doesn't mean that an artist gets all the payments they have to pay – every company and collection company has different rules about how long they hold on to unclaimed royalties. The musician who owed $ 40,000 due to a glitch between two databases removed many of his credits. It wasn't the musician's fault, but too much time had passed before anyone noticed. The companies involved refused to pay him.
"We take it for granted that we can look up movie or TV credits on IMDb and see everything, up to production assistants," says Jackson, who recently organized a stand-alone level panel on metadata at the Music Biz conference in Nashville. "But the changes to music metadata and standards are so slow."
Having a centralized database and setting standards for music metadata – Jackson & # 39; s idea of an IMDB for music – sounds like a simple goal, but achieving it has many of the largest and most powerful music entities curdled for decades. There are many reasons for this, but the tectonic shift to streaming makes an important contribution. "There was not only an explosion in the number of releases, but also the unbundling of the album," says Vickie Nauman, consultant for music technology company CrossBorderWorks. "We went from 100,000 physical albums released in a year to 25,000 digital songs that were uploaded to the streaming services one day."
Moreover, numbers are now consumed and monetized in many different ways that were not available a few decades ago. "Thinking back to the fact that people mainly bought CDs, the only version of an important song that mattered was the most important song itself," said Simon Dennett, chief product officer at Kobalt. Nowadays, a big hit can contain hundreds of different versions, such as remixes, covers, sample packs, YouTube lyrics videos, recordings in other languages, and more, all of which can generate a total of "trillions and trillions of transactions" that each bring in. fractions of a cent. "The amount of data that needs to be managed now has turned into a major problem," says Dennett.
Not only is there much more content in the catalog, but music rights are very fragmented in the beginning, and therefore slices of the metadata of a song are often stored in a variety of databases. Labels, publishers, collective associations and others all maintain their own databases, which do not come close to all information about all works that exist in the music industry. (To see how truly complicated music data is, here's a horrible flow chart The Music Maze and a interpreter of Sonicbids tracing ownership of numbers, ending with "consider paying for research.")
The creation of a global centralized database for song metadata has been tried several times, but has always ended in failure. Below the different reasons: mutual battles between different branches of the music industry, international management challenges, reluctance to share information and financing problems. There are also other more practical roadblocks, such as different languages, different copyright laws and cultures and traditions of the music industry around the world, which are often at odds with each other.
There is not much agreement as to whether a certain branch of the music industry should take the lead or be responsible for determining music metadata. Some think that digital music distribution companies such as TuneCore or DistroKid could do more to train artists, as it is often the only point of contact for an artist before their music is live on streaming platforms. Others think that the streaming platforms themselves can be an example for better metadata by displaying more credits, which would encourage all involved to ensure that the data is correct. Some, such as Jackson, suggest training songwriters and producers to preserve metadata records as they are created. "I can imagine that in the long run alone this will make our work a lot easier if we get this (metadata) from the source as quickly as possible," says Jackson.
But many artists don't even know they need to worry about metadata, or that potential metadata issues could affect their pay, because royalties are so complicated. A Grammy-nominated artist I spoke to said, "Frankly, I wouldn't even know where to look to find out." Many startups try to make artists more aware of metadata, but it is a tough battle. split, a free mobile app that allows artists to create a digital agreement that manages the contributors of a song and their ownership percentages. There is also Creator Credits, a technology that works with Pro Tools software to integrate song credits into the Pro Tools files themselves.
What everyone agrees with is that while things are getting a little better, there is still a long way to go. "I remember putting things on TuneCore and I didn't ask you for metadata. Maybe a song title and that's it," says Doug Mitchell, director of customer success at music technology company Exactuals. "Now you are asked for more information, such as genre. Because the stores display more metadata, (TuneCore) asks for that information. That's a start."
Although the idea of making centralized and standardized metadata is daunting, many say it is not something to give up. Apart from cleaning up archiving errors, this would help prevent other musicians & # 39; penny & # 39; s dripping & # 39; and bring them into contact with the money they earn. "The process of taking hugely dispersed geographic data, hugely dispersed ownership data, and hugely irregular data quality, and compressing that into a coherently aggregated overall picture, is a challenging but incredibly noble mission," says Dennett. Conyers III makes it even easier: "It's a good dream."