Swedish Artists Looking To Take Labels To Court Over Spotify Royalties

from the surprisingly,-spotify-is-not-the-villain-here dept

A couple of major labels and Spotify are headed for a legal showdown, but not the way anyone would first assume -- and in, of all places, Sweden, where Spotify has enjoyed tremendous success. This isn't friction between Spotify and major labels coming to a head, but rather artists taking on the labels for devouring a majority of Spotify's payouts. It goes beyond inequitable royalty distribution, though. Those bringing the lawsuit are also accusing the labels of granting themselves rights they never had and infinitely extending those they do.

Even Thom Yorke can’t pull his old Radiohead classics from Spotify, because the label has those rights. But what if that isn’t quite true? That’s the question now being tested by Per Herrey and the Swedish Musicians’ Union, Svenska Musikerförbundet. The threatened lawsuits, first reported by Sveriges Radio in Stockholm, allege that labels are not only screwing artists, but extending digital streaming rights that they simply don’t have.

Herrey points to possible legal action against Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group, both majors that have received massive advances and equity shares from Spotify while passing little on to artists.
It's been argued several times on this site that Spotify's royalty payments, which are portrayed by its opponents as insultingly low, aren't truly or completely its fault. Someone's taking a huge portion of those payouts before they hit the artists. Spotify pays out over 70% of its revenue in royalties, a percentage the labels certainly aren't willing to match. Herrey compares the payout artists receive from their labels -- which he estimates is only 6-10% of what's collected from Spotify -- to the normal radio payout, which is split 50/50. A streaming service comprised of mostly non-paying members is going to be hard-pressed to generate sizable artist incomes, but the labels' ability to grab 90% of the payments makes it impossible.

The additional accusation suggests the labels are working to make this situation even worse. According to Herrey, labels are crafting digital rights ownership out of thin air, especially on older, long-running contracts. Herrey suggests the labels should remove all digital works until these contracts can be renegotiated to deal with the shift in content consumption.

Herrey's suggestion (and planned lawsuit) can probably be traced back to Eminem's successful suit against UMG. UMG had been (and likely still continues to do so) playing terminology games in order to maximize its share of royalties from iTunes. UMG called these "sales" in order to claim 85% of the royalties. Eminem's legal team called them "licenses," which would have meant Eminem was due 50% of each sale/license. As anyone who's seen the amount of restrictions applied to your "purchase" of a track from iTunes can attest, you're not really "purchasing" these songs from iTunes -- you're merely "renting" them. Any right of first sale does not apply to most digital goods. Hence, a "license" rather than a "sale."

If UMG's shifty semantics are any indicator of common major label tactics, there's little doubt the digital rights conjured up have been been severely tilted in the labels' favor. And if Herrey's statement about the 6-10% trickle-down from Spotify is correct, then the labels are utilizing some very generous contractual language that somehow views a streamed song as a "sale." Or, perhaps, it doesn't address it at all and hopes the affected artists won't notice.

Filed Under: artists, labels, royalties, sweden
Companies: spotify


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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 30 Oct 2013 @ 5:56am

    I seem to recall reading somewhere that a typical record contract has different royalty payouts for different media. CDs and radio pay well enough, while anything classed as "new media" usually has a royalty payout to the artist between 0 and 5%.

    "New media" is basically anything connected to the internet, such as streaming which has only been around for what, 20 years?

    I think it's rather refreshing to see that someone somewhere has finally realised that they are being screwed by their labels and their contracts, rather than Spotify.

    One, JUST ONCE, I'd like to see one of these artists who blame spotify publish the numbers:

    1 How many plays did your music get?
    2 How much did Spotify actually pay in royalties for those plays?
    3 What was the size of the artist's paycheck?

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