from the those-accountants-are-really-expensive dept
Ah, Hollywood copyright math. In the past, we've discussed a few instances of how massively profitable films use funny accounting tricks in order to avoid ever having to show an official profit, even as the studios themselves make out nicely. The key trick: the studios set up special subsidiaries just for each film, and then charge those subsidiaries huge sums of money for effectively doing very little. Thus, the studio gets all the money, but the actual "film" is shown as remaining in the red.
The latest example of this in action involves a group of investors who gave $375 million to Paramount Pictures expecting to see some return on blockbusters like Mission: Impossible III, Blades of Glory and the Transformers series. All in all, those $375 million dollars found their way into 29 movies, many of which were massively successful. In total, the collection of films brought in $7 billion dollars worldwide. And... Paramount didn't pay a single dime out to those investors, until they were finally taken to court.
The financiers charged Paramount with understating gross receipts, delaying payments, overstating production and distribution costs and hindering audit rights to verify revenue and costs with the films that Melrose II had funded. The plaintiff also had a bone to pick with how revenue from Melrose II-funded films was being received through Paramount parent Viacom, not Paramount, and how money was flowing. For instance, Paramount allegedly paid sister company MTV as a third-party participant for Nacho Libre and Charlotte's Web.
In reaction to the claims, Paramount initially described the lawsuit as "filled with hyperbole" and claimed that it "ignores the true facts."
Later, Paramount characterized the investors as being impatient. "Based on the performance of the films in which it invested, Melrose II is expected to make a double-digit return on its investment," the studio alleged.
Perhaps hoping to keep the mysteries of Hollywood accounting secret, Paramount has now worked out a "settlement" with the investors, just as hearings were about to begin. It seems likely that Paramount coughed up some money to keep the investors happy... and to keep from having to provide to the court information on how the money flowed, where all of us would have seen some more details of the infamous Hollywood accounting practices.
Over the years, we've noticed some questionable "accounting" practices in various parts of the entertainment industry. There's recording industry accounting, where labels make a ton of money and most musicians end up in debt. There's Hollywood accounting, where some of the most successful movies of all time are somehow declared "not profitable" so they can avoid paying actors any residuals. Then there is music performance rights accounting, where only the top 200 touring acts get to collect royalty money.
According to Plaintiff, the event was “extremely popular” — traffic was backed up on the
highways and news outlets reported large crowds of twenty to forty thousand people attending... Much to Plaintiff’s surprise, Defendant reported that it had sold only 13,151 tickets.... These numbers seemed too low to Plaintiff, and Plaintiff began an investigation of
Defendant’s audit reports... Plaintiff allegedly found that on the day before the
event, March 24, 2009, Defendant reported that the number of tickets sold was 14,408... The very next day, though, the reported number of sales dropped to 11,098...
According to Plaintiff, this was suspicious because there were no refunds or exchanges... Based on this suspicion, Plaintiff hired an expert in digital imaging who examined the
video footage of the soccer match... The expert estimated that attendance was likely
as high as 24,311.
Kinda makes you wonder if this is standard practice... and if this is why the legacy entertainment guys seem to assume that all fans want to screw them over. Perhaps they're just used to every one else they run into trying to screw them over.
Last year, we wrote about Hollywood accounting and how the big studios set up "corporations" for each movie, specifically designed to "lose money," often by paying money back to the studio itself. Basically, the studio sets up this "company," but then charges the company a huge "fee," such that the company itself rarely, if ever, becomes profitable. Of course, hugely successful films usually still get past the threshold, but perhaps not all of them. Hugues Lamy points us to the news that the actor who played Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi is saying that Lucasfilm still isn't paying residuals, claiming that the film is still not profitable:
“I get these occasional letters from Lucasfilm saying that we regret to inform you that as Return of the Jedi has never gone into profit, we’ve got nothing to send you. Now here we’re talking about one of the biggest releases of all time,” said Prowse. “I don’t want to look like I’m bitching about it,” he said, “but on the other hand, if there’s a pot of gold somewhere that I ought to be having a share of, I would like to see it.”
Last year, we had a post on RIAA accounting, detailing how labels screw over many musicians, even some of the best selling ones, such that they never actually make a dime in royalties. Bas points us to an excellent 14 minute video from lawyer Martin Frascogna, entitled How To Sell 1 Million Albums and Owe $500,000:
It definitely covers a lot of the same ground (in fact, his advance numbers and sales numbers match up exactly with the numbers we quoted last time from Courtney Love), but it also delves into some of the sneakier aspects of record label contracts with musicians -- things that many musicians simply won't know about or understand when they sign their contract. Using those points, he breaks down how a band might think it's getting royalties on $20 million worth of sales but then find out that, thanks to some of these fun tricks, the basis for calculating the royalty takes that number all the way down to $4.9 million (and then with a 10% royalty, the official take is $490,000 -- but if the advance is $1 million... the band still technically "owes" $500,000).
And, as we noted in the post last year, don't think that because a band goes "unrecouped" that the label loses money on them. The "recouping" only comes from the 10% royalty rates, which are really much, much lower (in this example, the "real" royalty rate is more like 2.5% due to the clauses in the contract). That leaves 97.5% of the money in play. Obviously, some of that is covering costs and expenses. But there's plenty of cash that makes its way into the label's bank account, when an album sells $20 million.
As for what kinds of tricks the labels use, well, Frascogna notes "breakage fees" of 20%, which are based on breakage rates for vinyl from half a century ago. That CDs don't break so much and that digital files don't break at all, doesn't matter. The labels still try to get a super high breakage rate that they get to deduct. For them, it's pure profit. Then there are "uncollected account" withholdings, on the basis that some retailers go bankrupt and don't pay for the stock they had. The way it's described here, that's often just a set number, rather than based on any actual, documented cases of uncollected fees. Next up? "Free goods." Now, we talk about the importance of free goods all the time. But here it's used in a different manner. Basically the labels deduct the "cost" of providing reviewers/radio stations/etc. with "free" copies of your album. That money comes straight out of the gross that the royalty is calculated on. The fact that you could just email the mp3 to those folks yourself? Well, pay no attention to that newfangled technology.
Next up, there are "container charges." That's for things like the jewel cases and inserts for CDs. Again, the fact that digital music doesn't have such expenses is pretty much ignored. Also, the fact that all of these expenses get deducted from the artists' share? That also seems wrong. Even more insane? Apparently the standard "container charge" is an additional 30% off the revenue. Again, in many cases that's just pure profit for the labels.
Finally, there's the ever lovely and totally amorphous "reserves." As Frascogna notes: "no one really knows what reserves entail." It's basically a blank check for the record labels to claim they have to keep some of the money themselves for "other stuff," which is mostly undefined. In this case, some labels simply set a straight percentage, up to 20% more of the gross that artists never get to see as part of their own royalties.
Bring all that together, and the 10% royalty looks more like a 2.5% royalty, and that's not enough to even get halfway to recouping even if you sell 1 million albums at the high high price of $20/album. And that doesn't even touch on splitting up any money you get between band members and paying the manager/agent, etc. When you dig in to things like this, you can understand how artists like Lyle Lovett can say they've sold 4.6 million albums and never made a dime in royalties from album sales.
Now, many of these points can be negotiable if you're knowledgeable about them. But many artists sign such contracts without realizing what that fine print really means -- and that's just what a lot of the labels are counting on.
Our recent post on recording industry accounting got plenty of attention, and it appears that more and more media sources are bursting the bubble of the myth of major record label deals. The latest is the BBC, which has a story about how a £1 million record deal isn't quite what most people think it is. Apparently, over in the UK, they throw around "£1 million record deal" like they throw around "$1 million record deal" in the US (despite the fact that the actual amounts are pretty different), and people think it sounds impressive. But, of course, as we've already noted, it's not really that impressive. Most of that money goes towards other stuff, and then the label keeps taking money that you earn to "recoup" the advance, even as it's taking most of your album sales revenue directly for itself anyway (and not counting that towards the recoup).
The article highlights a guy who won one of the big UK TV music competition shows... but has already been dropped from his label despite selling 500,000 singles and having a top 5 album in the charts. The final quote in the article basically highlights how a million dollar/pound recording deal really doesn't mean anything at all:
"What record companies are actually saying when they offer a £1m record deal is, 'we're going to pay the basic costs and, as long as you make it very quickly, then you can make a lot of money'.
"But you're going to have to make it very quickly.
"Now it seems to me that, if you don't make it in five minutes or on The X Factor, then you don't make it."
So there you go. A million pound/dollar recording deal covers your basic costs, and if you don't make it back in about five minutes, then you're basically a lost cause. Once again, those "big" record deals aren't looking so hot any more, are they?
We recently had a fun post about Hollywood accounting, about how the movie industry makes sure even big hit movies "lose money" on paper. So how about the recording industry? Well, they're pretty famous for doing something quite similar. Reader Jay pointed out in the comments an article from The Root that goes through who gets paid what for music sales, and the basic answer is not the musician. That report suggests that for every $1,000 sold, the average musician gets $23.40. Here's the chart that the article shows, though you should read the whole article for all of the details:
Of course, it's actually even more ridiculous than this report makes it out to be. Going back ten years ago, Courtney Love famously laid out the details of recording economics, where the label can make $11 million... and the actual artists make absolutely nothing. It starts off with a band getting a massive $1 million advance, and then you follow the money:
What happens to that million dollars?
They spend half a million to record their album. That leaves the band with $500,000. They pay $100,000 to their manager for 20 percent commission. They pay $25,000 each to their lawyer and business manager.
That leaves $350,000 for the four band members to split. After $170,000 in taxes, there's $180,000 left. That comes out to $45,000 per person.
That's $45,000 to live on for a year until the record gets released.
The record is a big hit and sells a million copies. (How a bidding-war band sells a million copies of its debut record is another rant entirely, but it's based on any basic civics-class knowledge that any of us have about cartels. Put simply, the antitrust laws in this country are basically a joke, protecting us just enough to not have to re-name our park service the Phillip Morris National Park Service.)
So, this band releases two singles and makes two videos. The two videos cost a million dollars to make and 50 percent of the video production costs are recouped out of the band's royalties.
The band gets $200,000 in tour support, which is 100 percent recoupable.
The record company spends $300,000 on independent radio promotion. You have to pay independent promotion to get your song on the radio; independent promotion is a system where the record companies use middlemen so they can pretend not to know that radio stations -- the unified broadcast system -- are getting paid to play their records.
All of those independent promotion costs are charged to the band.
Since the original million-dollar advance is also recoupable, the band owes $2 million to the record company.
If all of the million records are sold at full price with no discounts or record clubs, the band earns $2 million in royalties, since their 20 percent royalty works out to $2 a record.
Two million dollars in royalties minus $2 million in recoupable expenses equals ... zero!
How much does the record company make?
They grossed $11 million.
It costs $500,000 to manufacture the CDs and they advanced the band $1 million. Plus there were $1 million in video costs, $300,000 in radio promotion and $200,000 in tour support.
The company also paid $750,000 in music publishing royalties.
They spent $2.2 million on marketing. That's mostly retail advertising, but marketing also pays for those huge posters of Marilyn Manson in Times Square and the street scouts who drive around in vans handing out black Korn T-shirts and backwards baseball caps. Not to mention trips to Scores and cash for tips for all and sundry.
Add it up and the record company has spent about $4.4 million.
So their profit is $6.6 million; the band may as well be working at a 7-Eleven.
And that explains why huge megastars like Lyle Lovett have pointed out that he sold 4.6 million records and never made a dime from album sales. It's why the band 30 Seconds to Mars went platinum and sold 2 million records and never made a dime from album sales. You hear these stories quite often.
And note that those are bands that are hugely, massively popular. How about those that just do okay? Remember last year, when Tim Quirk of the band Too Much Joy revealed how Warner Music made a ton of money of of the band's albums, but simply refuses to accurately account for royalties owed, because the band is considered unrecoupable. Sometimes the numbers even go in reverse. If you don't understand RIAA accounting, you might think that if a band hasn't "recouped" its advance, it means that the record labels lost money. Not so in many cases. Quirk explained the neat accounting trick in a footnote to his post about his own royalty statement:
A word here about that unrecouped balance, for those uninitiated in the complex mechanics of major label accounting. While our royalty statement shows Too Much Joy in the red with Warner Bros. (now by only $395,214.71 after that $62.47 digital windfall), this doesn't mean Warner "lost" nearly $400,000 on the band. That's how much they spent on us, and we don't see any royalty checks until it's paid back, but it doesn't get paid back out of the full price of every album sold. It gets paid back out of the band's share of every album sold, which is roughly 10% of the retail price. So, using round numbers to make the math as easy as possible to understand, let's say Warner Bros. spent something like $450,000 total on TMJ. If Warner sold 15,000 copies of each of the three TMJ records they released at a wholesale price of $10 each, they would have earned back the $450,000. But if those records were retailing for $15, TMJ would have only paid back $67,500, and our statement would show an unrecouped balance of $382,500.
I do not share this information out of a Steve Albini-esque desire to rail against the major label system (he already wrote the definitive rant, which you can find here if you want even more figures, and enjoy having those figures bracketed with cursing and insults). I'm simply explaining why I'm not embarrassed that I "owe" Warner Bros. almost $400,000. They didn't make a lot of money off of Too Much Joy. But they didn't lose any, either. So whenever you hear some label flak claiming 98% of the bands they sign lose money for the company, substitute the phrase "just don't earn enough" for the word "lose."
So, back to our original example of the average musician only earning $23.40 for every $1,000 sold. That money has to go back towards "recouping" the advance, even though the label is still straight up cashing 63% of every sale, which does not go towards making up the advance. The math here gets ridiculous pretty quickly when you start to think about it. These record label deals are basically out and out scams. In a traditional loan, you invest the money and pay back out of your proceeds. But a record label deal is nothing like that at all. They make you a "loan" and then take the first 63% of any dollar you make, get to automatically increase the size of the "loan" by simply adding in all sorts of crazy expenses (did the exec bring in pizza at the recording session? that gets added on), and then tries to get the loan repaid out of what meager pittance they've left for you.
Oh, and after all of that, the record label still owns the copyrights. That's one of the most lopsided business deals ever.
So think of that the next time the RIAA or some major record label exec (or politician) suggests that protecting the record labels is somehow in the musicians' best interests. And then, take a look at the models that some musicians have adopted by going around the major label system. They may not gross as much without the major record label marketing push behind them, but they're netting a whole lot more, and as any business person will tell you (except if that business person is a major label A&R guy trying to sign you to a deal), the net amount is all that matters.
With Tim Quirk's story about his fictional royalty statements from Warner Music, more people are beginning to talk about these kinds of things. Bob Lefsetz points to another report of a royalty statement of an unrecouped artist (and former major label exec), David Bach, who notes with some surprise that on his last royalty statement from Warner Music, the amount the band owed had gone up. In other words, the royalties that the band had accrued had somehow decreased:
In May of 2007, I wrote a post about the wacky world of record company royalty recoupment.
This week (Nov.-2009) - I received another royalty statement.
Wow!...we've gone backwards!
In May 2007, we were unrecouped to Warner Brothers to the tune of $174,073.84
Now, to be fair, Bach still says that he was happy with his major record deal, in noting that it was effectively an "unsecured loan" in that he doesn't lose his house if it never gets recouped. He conveniently leaves out the clear explanation that the label is still making money based on the wholesale price of the album, which is many times over what royalties are due to recoup the advance. He also leaves out the fact that while it was an "unsecured loan," it also involved him giving up basically all rights to the music created under that deal forever (or, as the industry prefers, forever minus a day). Not sure that's really that great a deal. With a real loan, you don't also give up the lender something to keep forever. That's not a loan, it's a transaction.
Still, the bigger issue is this idea that the amount that still needs to be recouped has gone backwards over time. It again raises serious questions about how Warner Music accounts for what it owes bands, whether they're recouped or unrecouped. I recognize that accounting may be a boring topic, but it's an important one that Warner has contractual obligations to keep accurate. And... plenty of other businesses with similar challenges seem to be able to keep track of what royalties are owed to whom. Why can't Warner Music keep it straight?
from the because-that-would-mean-paying-them-accurately dept
The more you learn about the way major record labels work, the more ridiculous it seems. Unlike pretty much every other creative deal making situation, musicians who sign major record label contracts basically hand over all their rights to the label. The label gets the copyright. It gets to determine the type of music the musician plays. It handles much of the marketing and promotion. And... the biggest thing of all is that it handles all the accounting and payments (if there are any). Over the years, that's resulted in many, many accusations from artists that the labels are flat out lying about how much an artist actually earns. That's why you hear stories of artists selling millions of albums and never seeing a dime in royalties or of artists suing record labels because of sneaky accounting tricks to hide how much an album has earned.
Dave Stewart, from the Eurythmics, has written an article for Billboard where he points out that any retailer in the world has access to amazingly detailed technology and tools to track transactions and settle details with credit card company merchant accounts. He notes how ridiculous it is that such systems have been available for nearly thirty years... and he still can't get an accurate transparent accounting of what a record label has sold.
In the past, the major labels could get away with this, because they were the only real game in town, if a band really wanted to get big. But that's changing. This, of course, is the major labels real concern over new innovations and technology. It's not piracy. It's that new technologies take away the biggest scam they've had going for ages: the ability to keep tons of money that never belonged to them. And that's changing. As Stewart notes:
In the future, all incoming revenue streams will be reported in real time, with transaction costs pre-defined and competitive with the market. In the old model, content distributors have been slow and/or reluctant to adopt new media. Distributors frequently take significant portions of creative control out of the hands of the artist, placing restrictions on format, functionality, interactivity and other components. Copyright controls inherently limit the models and methods of release and distribution of artist products. Digital distribution and rights management methods have failed to leverage technological and business advancements to serve consumer, artistic and corporate interests. With many distributors, the feedback loop on consumer usage is also limited. Buyer profiles, habits and usage patterns are not shared with artists, who are then forced to use other means (surveys, focus groups) to determine how their content is being received by the fan. Especially troubling is that, in many cases, artists are not entitled to any control over precisely what happens with their creative work, or to apply some of the new and innovative ideas in the digital landscape due to restrictions from rights holders. Digital media technologies for distribution, asset management, security and monetization have matured to the point that an easy-to-use, scalable, fully featured digital media gateway and financial tracking system is now possible and should be demanded by all artists.
With all of the financial mess out there, it's likely that we'll soon see calls for new regulations to help "protect" against fraud. However, before we rush into doing so, it's worth looking at how damaging previous attempts to do the same thing have been. We've already covered the massive amount of damage done by Sarbanes-Oxley, which basically made it extremely difficult for a private company to go public and significantly increased costs for any public company -- all while doing next to nothing to actually cut down on fraud.
And, now, FAS 157 has come into play -- a new rule impacting many venture capitalists, forcing them to figure out what the "fair market value" of their investments are, and provide that number to their investors. This has many different VCs complaining about what a stupid process this is. It raises similar questions as the legal change a few years ago that required companies to put stock option valuations on their books as well. The problem is that these things are impossible to accurately value. Not difficult, but impossible. You're asking people to value a totally illiquid asset as if it were liquid.
Even if the venture capitalists use a rigorous process, the result will be wrong. There's simply no way to accurately value something like a private startup until another transaction happens where the value is actually set. And, that's the way it should be for a private investment (it's also why not everyone is allowed to invest in such endeavors, because it is inherently more risky). But forcing companies to make up bogus (no matter how well meaning) valuations for companies has dangerous unintended consequences. No matter how bogus the numbers are, since they're there, people will use them as if they're real. And that will lead to more bad investing, rather than less. So, once again, we have a law designed to stop bad investing, which will most likely cause the opposite to occur.