CMU's Chris Cooke on Music Rights Data & Assets

As part of our educational programme Catalogue Academy, rightsHUB talks to CMU's Chris Cooke, Co-Founder and Managing Director of music business consultancy CMU and author of groundbreaking book "Dissecting The Digital Dollar".

When you’re talking about music data, the first thing that you need to ask is “which categories of data are we talking about?” The big distinction I tend to make is between the data that the industry creates and pushes out into the world, versus the data that comes back once music is being consumed, played, performed and otherwise monetised.

In terms of the data that comes back, we are talking about things like usage and fan data. This can be data regarding where and when a track is played, or when and how fans have interacted with a track or an artist online, or data relating to ticket sales and shows. 

This can be specific information about the fanbase at large, for example the demographics of an artist’s audience on social media. But it could also be something about an individual fan – the email address of a ticket buyer, for example. This data is constantly evolving, and constantly changing. 

This data is particularly important when it comes to marketing because it allows us to better plan and target the messaging of our marketing campaigns, and therefore better reach people who might be interested in our music. It can also be used to inform and facilitate a direct-to-fan business, which is an increasingly important extra revenue stream for artists. 

With the data that the music industry creates and pushes out into the world, we are primarily talking about track and rights data. This includes all of the data that describes a track. Things like the title, artist, release date, genre and so on. Alongside this, there is data that allows us to uniquely identify each specific song and each specific recording, as well as who was involved in creating the music, and who controls all the different elements of the copyright. 

Without this data we don’t know who controls the rights, and therefore we don’t know who to pay when those songs and recordings are exploited. Collecting, organising and ingesting this data – and ensuring it meets current data standards – is a critical part of how the music business functions.

"The services have invested heavily in developing discovery, recommendation and curation tools. And a big part of providing those tools is having the right data and using it in the right way."

But this data is also really important for things like music discovery on the streaming platforms. At a basic level, it helps people identify any one track, album or artist, and search for the music they want to hear. But it also powers the music discovery tools the streaming services have developed. 

With so much music on the streaming services, many users struggle to navigate everything that is on offer. When presented with 70 million tracks to choose from – with millions more tracks being added every year – it’s easy to forget the name of every artist and song you like. 

So the services have invested heavily in developing discovery, recommendation and curation tools. And a big part of providing those tools is having the right data and using it in the right way. 

Those tools are constantly evolving, partly as the services learn more about how people interact with music, and partly as things like voice control become part of the experience. As the tools evolve, the kinds of data the services need evolves too. They feedback those requirements to the music industry – to labels and distributors directly – and through organisations like DDEX which create meta-data standards for everyone to adhere to.

If you’re an independent label, you’re usually operating with a relatively small team – but at the same time you may well be sitting on a relatively sizable catalogue of tracks. Every time that a new demand comes along about what sort of data you are being asked to provide, the question is who is going to provide all that data? Is the label doing it themselves, is the distributor doing it – and is the data even held somewhere, in one place, that the relevant partner can pull it together and deliver it up the chain. Being on top of data is a key part of catalogue management, and capturing data at key points in the process is important.

Somewhat confusingly, the industry often talks about “catalogue” to mean “non-frontline music” – or, in other words, music that has been released at some period in the past and is not being as actively marketed as a new release from an artist. 

One thing that streaming has helped enable is that it’s now easier than ever to access these “catalogue” tracks, and in turn it means that historic catalogue is being more actively consumed – and so is generating more money – and making more money without any obvious upfront marketing investment. You’re not having to release, repress and redistribute that music to get it to market: it’s there on the streaming services, and it can be added to playlists, discovered through voice service, and all these other things. But of course the flip side of this is that this value does come with a cost – because in order to properly manage this catalogue and ensure that people can find those tracks, and ensure that it generates the maximum revenue, there are administrative tasks and data tasks relating to that catalogue of tracks. So labels do need to have someone who is keeping on top of all of this. You’re going to have to invest in managing the catalogue in ever more sophisticated ways, and key to this is staying on top of data, providing new data when required, and ensuring that everything is up to standard.

These days, as the industry becomes more sophisticated, anyone acquiring catalogue is going to be saying "why isn’t this data just available in a database?"

With this increased “passive” value of catalogue generated by streaming and discovery and these sorts of things we’ve seen an increase in the value that people put on catalogue as assets – and with this a quite active market in catalogue acquisitions. If anyone is going to acquire a catalogue of tracks, they’re going to have to work out how to value it.

Traditionally, when music rights acquisitions occurred often how it worked was that the acquirer would value the top 10% of the catalogue. They’d look at the sales data – or usage data – see what rights were generating the most money, and the value would be based on the top 10% of the catalogue. Today to be able to value a catalogue – and do the due diligence on acquisition – there’s far more data that we need: i.e. What are the rights? Are we paying on these rights? Do we have these rights for life of copyright? Or are these rights going to revert to the artist at some point. 

I’ve spoken to people who’ve acquired large catalogues by valuing it on the top 10% and then they’ve literally had a truck turn up with filing cabinets full of contracts. Somebody has to then go through all of those contracts and say “Well, that else have we acquired? We know about the top 10%, but what else is in here?” These days, as the industry becomes more sophisticated, anyone acquiring catalogue is going to be saying “why isn’t this data just available in a database?”

The way we are exploiting catalogue is changing as well. This can present itself as a challenge because often you don’t have that contractual data in an easily accessible form. It’s all sitting in paper contracts in a filing cabinet somewhere. Ultimately, in an industry as creative as the music industry, data is sometimes seen as being a little bit dull. But actually, the data is the business.

It’s intellectual property, and the rights associated with that IP that sits at the very heart of the business. It’s really important for everyone to have at least a basic understanding of that data – and with new releases, we can anticipate that in the future this sort of information is going to become even more important. And so getting all the relevant data for new releases into some sort of database from the very start is important, so that we’re not faced with another catalogue data problem in 10 years time. 

There are a number of big ongoing debates around data. There are still lots of issues when it comes to copyright ownership data which impacts more on the publishing side of the business than the recording side of the business. There are songwriters who are earning nothing from streaming, but they may well be the reason why they’re not getting any money is because of bad data. Because the data isn’t in the system, or it’s wrong in the system. We’re starting to see songwriters and publishers asking whether labels should be taking some responsibility for this, because it’s a label that provides a track to Spotify. At the moment the label has to provide all the rights data to go with the track. Obviously they would want to set the copyright owner, but they’re not providing rights data with relation to the song – that’s the responsibility of a publisher or collecting society down the line. 

As music gets used on different platforms in different ways, there are other unique data challenges to overcome. For example, the audio ID issue around user generated content – where music has started offline and then a user has uploaded it to a platform like TikTok we need to be on top of the audio ID and how we identify the use of music in platforms like this. There’s a whole load of new growth and evolution when it comes to those sorts of apps and I’m almost certain that this is going to create new data demands and data challenges down the line. So as the market evolves, the data requirements are going to evolve with it.

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