Most Content Creators Are Still Underpaid (Guest Column)

Paul Goldman is the founder of the digital rights management company Muserk. 

I started my career as a composer, writing jingles and interstitial TV music. I was used to hearing my work out in the world, but I was still surprised when, on a trip to Tokyo about a decade ago, I caught a rerun of that year’s MTV Video Music Awards in a hotel gym; I had done all the show’s interstitials and packaging just weeks earlier. Now here I was, 7,000 miles from home, gazing at my treadmill’s built-in screen and reuniting with my own music. “Man,” I thought, “I have a cool job.”

With that little epiphany came a question: How do I know I’m being compensated for that broadcast and the other plays my work is getting around the world? Everyone in the music business knows that tracking down royalties is a mind-numbing ordeal, but few of us see just how much gets left on the table. Back then it was estimated that ASCAP, BMI and other performance rights organizations were holding almost $1 billion in “unmatched” royalties — money that could not be matched with copyright holders due to missing or inaccurate data.

I called up my PRO as soon as I got home. Sure enough, they hadn’t received the documentation that tied my compositions to several major shows I’d worked on. They gave me a decent settlement, but by then I knew I had hundreds of thousands in unmatched royalties. I was shocked, for myself and for everyone who creates audio and video content. Are we really missing out on that much of our own money? 

Yes, we are. For a few reasons: Even after the 2018 passage of the Music Modernization Act, the industry is beholden to laws written long before the advent of digital entertainment. (PROs are still struggling to change World War II-era regulations that dictate how they do business with streamers.) On the tech side, the tools PROs use to track royalties are no match for those used by the streaming giants. And the industry tends to balk at the idea of change, in large part because the players at the top don’t want to tamper with the mechanisms that got them there. The result is a system that favors labels and streamers over creators — and a culture where artists are told that “exposure” is compensation enough and miniscule payouts are simply the way it works.

Recent developments in this area have revealed how much is at stake. Back in February, 20 digital service providers, including Spotify, Apple Music and Google Play, paid out some $424 million in unmatched royalties to a nonprofit licensing organization founded in the wake of the MMA. With the money came 9 billion lines of data. Great news, but getting those funds to the creators is another story. Systemic change doesn’t happen overnight: Making streaming platforms, labels and artists share revenues equitably is going to take seismic legal and technological innovation.

Fortunately, we have the tools to help creators earn more right now.

The most urgent challenge lies in the data. In order to track down those wayward credits, you need to sift through petabytes of information from all over the world while making sure nothing gets lost in translation. This requires next-level technology, but the result is simple: more data processed equals more revenue for creators.

With that in mind, I founded a digital rights management company called Muserk. I had no grand visions of industry-wide upheaval; I just wanted to fix the parts that leaked, blocked or obscured revenues. My team developed and trademarked Blue Matter, a platform powered by AI and machine learning that can rapidly ingest tens of millions of rows of data. The software matches its findings against the colossal databases of today’s tech platforms and, in minutes, outputs simple statements that can be used to collect payments and distribute them to the copyright holders.

But AI, for all its “Matrix-style mystique, can’t always make sense of subtle quirks in the data. (Think of all the different languages, character sets and accents in a global marketplace, or just think of all the possible variations of the name Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.) That’s why we use human-in-the-loop methodology. Bringing together bleeding-edge tech and the passion and expertise of actual people, Muserk can find up to 50 percent more matches than older, more widely used systems. Our team of just 14 people manages over 6 million works in over 45 languages, and in four years we’ve recovered millions in previously unmatched royalties. Recently we expanded into comedy, podcasting and spoken word, bringing value to creators who struggle even harder than musicians to get what’s theirs

These days, the business of content ownership is headline news. You don’t have to be an insider to know that Bob Dylan sold off his whole catalog and Taylor Swift is re-recording her early albums. Masters and publishing rights are changing hands at a dizzying rate, and even as technology evolves the industry continues to pit human minds against tsunamis of data. But therein lies opportunity: When old collides with new, we’re perfectly positioned to attack the problem — to keep this conversation in the mainstream while we change the industry from within.

The true beneficiaries of this change? The fans. I wouldn’t be doing this without the joy and inspiration I get from my favorite artists, shows and podcasts. The more we value creators and help them get the compensation they deserve, the richer life will be for all of us.

Tobi❤

Tobi is a reserved individual, loves making friends and a top-notch web developer. Currently, he's working as a freelancer for cmatrends.com

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