is music a commodity?

Megatrax CEO & Founder Ron Mendelsohn

Megatrax CEO & Founder Ron Mendelsohn

Even though I have already written extensively on the subject of retitling, I would now like to address the issue from a slightly different angle after having spoken with a number of composers and clients recently. To recap, retitling is the practice by which composers and songwriters release the identical musical work with multiple distributors on non-exclusive basis. Over the past several months I have consistently heard clients bemoan this practice because it makes their job more difficult;  it can be confusing to ascertain the source of a music track as the chain of rights is more ambiguous (“who got the placement?”), which can expose clients to licensing hassles as well as potential litigation.  At the recent Billboard Film/TV Music conference, once again this topic came up and was roundly denounced by the panel of top Hollywood music supervisors. “It gets messier and messier”; “It opens you up to litigation”; “There are directives coming down from the studios not to use retitled music”- these were all some of the takeaways from the panel. But if it is so unanimously abhorred, why does the practice persist?

On the client side, many users are simply unaware which companies are dealing in retitled non-exclusive content and which companies operate on an exclusive basis.  On the artist side, composers and songwriters continue to be enamored with the prospect that they can “have their cake and eat it too;” i.e., they can seemingly retain their rights and avoid committing themselves to any one distributor. Yet the benefits of this arrangement are illusory and artists are actually shortchanging themselves financially while diminishing the value of their copyrights over the long run.

To my knowledge, in no other field are creators permitted to release identical copies of the same work under different titles through multiple distributors. In book publishing, for example, it would be truly absurd and duplicitous for an author to publish the exact same book under different titles and release it with multiple publishers. This practice would not benefit the consumer in any way; on the contrary, it would be quite annoying to purchase or download a book only to realize that it is identical to one previously purchased except for the title. The same analogy can be extended to motion pictures or to any other copyrightable commercial product. Even in the realm of stock images, surely the exact same photos do not appear on multiple sites (Getty, Corbis, Shutterstock, etc.)- this would hardly be a very effective differentiator for these businesses. Why only in the music industry is this practice being tolerated?

Ultimately, it boils down to economics 101. These days an aspiring composer or songwriter can easily create a song or composition using tools readily available on any computer or laptop. The result of this technological revolution is that the supply of music now far outstrips the demand (i.e., the demand by traditional exclusive libraries). All of this excess supply needs an outlet, and the non-exclusive companies have happily picked up the slack. While they could just as easily operate on an exclusive basis, these companies are concerned first and foremost with ramping up content so anything that would curtail their inflow of material is presumably not a desirable option.

I believe this is shortsighted. In order to differentiate itself, a business must provide products and services that are in some way unique or different from its competitors. Otherwise, it is just a commodity broker. By definition, a commodity is a good or service that is undistinguished in every way except for price. I do not believe that a creative work such as music should ever be treated in this regard. On the contrary, a copyrightable musical work should be managed in such as way as to maximize its value and exploit its unique attributes.

To be clear, I am not against enabling any composer or songwriter to earn a decent living, nor am I against the proliferation of new, innovative web-based business models that challenge the traditional status quo. I just think we would all be better off treating copyrighted musical works as unique creations with inherent value rather than as generic commodities. And apparently a growing number of clients and artists in the industry are starting to feel the same way.

Ron Mendelsohn

November 7, 2011

About the author

Megatrax Megatrax Production Music is the leading independent music source. Megatrax is dedicated to creating, licensing and delivering the finest quality production and custom music and best customer service in the industry. At Megatrax, our philosophy has always been to stay ahead of technology and to create exceptional quality music. Our commitment to excellence is evident in both the music we produce and the carefully selected catalogs that we represent. Our staff is dedicated to serving you in every way possible and our service team is focused on your specific production requirements. We have a list of products and services that are unmatched in the production music industry and are constantly evolving with your changing needs.

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