Understanding Songwriter Rights: A Q&A with Robby Towns of Music Biz

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Videos by American Songwriter

Robby Towns is somewhat of a jack of all trades – founding NestaMusic, assisting in the Columbia Records overhaul of digital initiatives, and serving as a strategic advisor on EDM (Electronic Dance Music) culture, Towns has a multitude of experience when it comes to the music industry and the fine points that uphold it.  Serving as the Director of Digital Strategy & Community at the Music Business (Music Biz) Association, Towns has created the agenda for the Songwriters & Publishing Town Hall panels during Music Biz 2015, which will take place on May 12-14 at the Sheraton Downtown in Nashville. The Town Hall, which consists of multiple panels including discussions involving representatives from Spotify, Songspace, YouTube, and the U.S. Copyright Office, aims to remedy the confusion songwriters experience in regards to new services and the royalties they deserve. We talked to Robby Towns about the transformation of the music industry, new and upcoming publishing services, and why Music Biz chose to host their event in Music City.

Songwriting and the publishing that surrounds it have changed substantially in the 60 years since Music Biz was created. How can the upcoming Music Biz event help bridge this gap?

There are a few areas. It is challenging for songwriters right now, given all the changes in ways to collect royalties, being knowledgeable about that and at the same time, being a songwriter, you have to focus on writing quality songs. I think the sessions we have planned cover some key areas that will be a great representation of updates on current legislation. Jacqueline Charlesworth from the U.S. Copyright Office will be updating us on all things related to the revamp that’s going on in the Copyright Act, in addition to the reintroduction of the Songwriter’s Equity Act. I’ll be talking about how you can optimize existing tools. We’ve got some people from YouTube, as well as Spotify, to walk through optimization and mechanics to leverage those existing platforms as a songwriter and publisher, and upcoming tools and services as well. Local-based start up Songspace will be doing a product demo. They’ve done some interesting things in terms of catalogue management, trying to fill a need that, 50 or 60 years ago, wouldn’t have been necessary. Now, something related to catalogue management and making it more efficient for songwriters and publishers is something that’s needed. So you have these upcoming services that are providing that.

Maurice Russell will be moderating a session regarding online video in the music industry. Is this concept as important today as it was 20 years ago?

I think it’s important in a different way, looking at platforms like YouTube and understanding the ins and outs of how you can gain money through those platforms. I think that they’ll also be talking about some of the changes on the publishing side during their session. I think it is relevant and it’s growing. Everyone knows about YouTube, but there are other services that are popping up. Twenty years ago, MTV was the sole vehicle for that. Now we’re looking at things like Vessel and other video platforms that are becoming available, and then also understanding the intermediary services that help songwriters and publishers. So yes, in some ways I think it’s more important just given the growth of this area and the ability to make money as a songwriter from it, as well as the variety of services that continue to pop up. I think deciding which one you’re going to spend your time on is challenging. How do you curate all of the opportunities that are out there?

James Duffett-Smith will be hosting a panel regarding the mechanics of publishing on Spotify. In light of the recent controversy involving Spotify and songwriter’s rights, do you consider publishing on Spotify to be a wise option?

I think any service that is available and looking for ways to pay creators is something that’s worth paying attention to. I think that some of the press and things that float around aren’t always providing all of the context, related to different services. I think Spotify has been very good about being open to having discussions about their service. Part of their website is dedicated to explaining in detail the way that royalties work on Spotify. James is coming to Nashville to talk about the mechanics and provide what I think will be key knowledge in terms of road-mapping the way that things work within their platform.

Music Biz aims to help advance music commerce over all platforms, including physical, digital and mobile. Why is the physical aspect of music commerce still so important today?

Look at the statistics around vinyl – that’s something there’s a lot of press around, so physical objects are still relevant. Songwriters also need to understand the whole landscape. This past year, streaming surpassed CD sales for the first time, so it’s a combination. For songwriters, it’s understanding the variety of the different products available, but (the platforms) have changed drastically. Obviously there’s two big differences which is the royalty structure and also the debate about how do you account for some of these new song apps if you’re trying to decide what is a hit or what to chart?

How will the Music Biz event help songwriters feel more in control of their music and the ways in which audiences consume it?

We’re talking about some new tools such as Songspace; it’s very much about understanding the mechanics, the supply chain and the way that these services work. Songwriters need to have time to focus on songwriting and also understanding there can be services to help administer that process. You have companies like catalogue managers and administrators, and there’ll be a variety of people representing the breadth of those services and companies. Anyone that spends time in that Town Hall will walk away with a lot of actual knowledge. It may not be them doing it themselves, it may be which companies they can partner with and which companies they can leverage. Synchtank is also doing a product demo, which is something that maybe as a publisher, makes sense for them to know, giving them some horse power in terms of finding placements and knowing the TV or movie industries.

Why has Music Biz chosen to host its event in Nashville for the first time?

There’s a few different factors. One was finding a location that suited our needs, and so the remodel with the Sheraton and that happening was a perfect fit for the size venue we needed, so logistics would be one thing… Nashville has this really strong legacy in country music that everyone who lives here appreciates, including myself. But it’s also become global entertainment city in many ways, as we see from having Third Man Records based here. We’re partnering with them for an event on the Tuesday of the conference. I think it was just a perfect fit. I’ve seen this transition with Nashville focusing on a broader range of genres and us going through this evolution in the past couple of years as an organization. The songwriting and publishing community in Nashville is unique – there’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world. Providing these individuals and companies with information about the changes in the marketplace and the tools to maximize those changes to their benefit is key to keeping that community vibrant, and we hope our Town Hall will accomplish just that.

For a full list of speakers who are scheduled for the Music Biz event on May 12-14, visit Music Biz’s website. Click here to purchase a special $29 pass. 

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