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Spotify: We ‘overpaid’ songwriters and their publishers in 2018, and we would like our money back

If you hadn’t noticed, tensions between the music publishing community and Spotify have taken a turn for the sour in recent months.

This all began in March when Spotify, alongside other music streaming operators like SiriusXM/Pandora, Google and Amazon, lodged an appeal against mandated pay rises for songwriters and publishers in the US.

The headline news about that pay rise, decided by the US Copyright Royalty Board, was that mechanical streaming payouts from the likes of Spotify would rise by 44% or more between 2018 and 2022.

It turns out, however, that there was some additional and under-reported complexity to the CRB decision concerning Spotify’s student discount offers and its family plan bundles – which allow up to six family members to stream Premium Spotify for a single price of just $14.99 a month.

Because of this additional complexity, Spotify has now calculated that, retrospectively, according to the CRB decision, many music publishers actually owe it money for 2018, due to an overpayment based on the prior rates. And guess what? It wants that money back.

Spotify told the publishers the news this week and, as you can imagine, these companies – already up in arms over Spotify’s CRB appeal – are fuming about it.

One senior figure in the music publishing industry told MBW: “Spotify is clawing back millions of dollars from publishers in the US based on the new CRB rates that favor the DSPs, while appealing the [wider CRB decision]. This puts some music publishers in a negative position. It’s unbelievable.”

Spotify isn’t expecting the publishers to hand over the money that it’s owed right away; instead, this negative balance will be treated as an advance by the company, which will be recouped from its 2019 royalty payouts to publishers (and, by association, their songwriters).

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A spokesperson for Spotify told MBW today (June 21): “According to the new CRB regulations, we overpaid most publishers in 2018. While the appeal of the CRB decision is pending, the rates set by the CRB are current law, and we will abide by them –  not only for 2018, but also for future years in which the amount paid to publishers is set to increase significantly.

“Rather than collect the 2018 overpayment immediately, we have offered to extend the recoupment period through the end of 2019 in order to minimize the impact of the adjustment on publishing companies.”

David Israelite, the CEO of the National Music Publishers Association who has consistently and publicly decried Spotify’s CRB appeal, told MBW in response to Spotify’s request for reimbursement from the publishers: “I find it so hypocritical for a digital service that is appealing the CRB decision to then take advantage of the parts of that decision that benefit it. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.”

The CRB rules that the annual streaming royalty rate in the States between 2018 and 2022 will be determined by the highest outcome across one of three different models: (i) a percentage of a streaming company’s total revenue; (ii) a percentage of what that streaming service pays to record labels each year; and (iii)  a flat fee per subscriber in the US.

Within the new CRB-approved regulations for streaming payouts, it says: “A Family Plan shall be treated as 1.5 subscribers per month, prorated in the case of a Family Plan Subscription in effect for only part of a calendar month. A Student Plan shall be treated as 0.50 subscribers per month, prorated in the case of a Student Plan End User who subscribed for only part of a calendar month.”

The NMPA announced last week that the US music publishing industry generated a record $3.33bn in 2018, up 11.8% year-on-year, and up 55% when compared to 2014.

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