Cover Story: Turn up the music

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 31, 2021 - June 06, 2021.
Cover Story: Turn up the music
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Government-sanctioned lockdowns have hit many industries, but it has been particularly damaging for local musicians, from independent artists to pub musicians. Across the country, they are struggling to make a living because under the standard operating procedures that came about in the wake of the pandemic, performing live in cafés and bars is forbidden. 

Strangely, “indoor and outdoor busking” is allowed, which means that, while cafés and bars are not allowed to pay musicians for their performance, the musicians are allowed to pass around a bucket to collect money from the audience, a situation that many find humiliating.

Many musicians rely on live performances to make money, especially at weddings and other functions, but they have had to turn to other means to make a living, such as a home catering business and even hosting online live shows via social media, in hopes that their regular listeners will donate money.

The Cultural Economy Development Agency (Cendana), which positions itself as an advocate of art, has been offering grants to musicians to help them financially — to the extent of setting up workshops on how to apply for the grants — but industry experts say many are still unaware of these grants or find it too difficult to apply for them.

Breaking Music director and co-founder Andrew Yap says independent artists who produce original songs have been relying on passive income from song streaming online during this time, which is made possible when an artist’s song has been registered as an intellectual property (IP).

He tells Digital Edge that almost all musicians — especially those who work in pubs, cafés and orchestras — depend on live shows for their income. 

One way to cushion the blow is to register the IP of their original creations so that they have at least one form of passive revenue during difficult times like this, when all their regular sources of income have ceased. The reality is that IPs are not going to replace income from live shows, but it is important to get it done because it is income that musicians would otherwise miss out on.

Yap’s co-founder and fellow director of Breaking Music Isaac Ravi explains that music IP is typically tagged to original music that an artist has written and recorded. With a music IP, musicians can earn royalties if a song is played on any platform or medium, be it in a store, on the radio or streamed online.

“Wherever your music is played, there is royalty to be collected if you own the rights to that piece of music. This aspect was less affected by the pandemic compared with those who relied on live shows because we can still continue making music indoors,” says Ravi.

But it is not as simple as it sounds. For starters, there are several agencies for artists to register with: Recording Performers Malaysia Bhd (RPM), Public Performance Malaysia Bhd (PPM), Music Authors Copyright Protection Bhd (MACP) and Intellectual Property Corp of Malaysia (MyIPO).

Each agency has slightly different functions with the same goal: to protect an artist’s music and earn them money (where applicable). Ravi explains that, across the board, all these agencies collect royalties for the person who owns certain rights to a piece of music, but each agency covers different rights, which means different types of royalty for each agency.

Ideally, an artist would need to register with all of these agencies, Ravi says. These agencies should also be in charge of collecting money from other countries that play an artist’s song, but the royalty collection process gets a lot more complicated once a song crosses country borders.

One plus point is that it does not cost much to register. It does take up a lot of time, however, as there is a lot of bureaucracy to get through, says Ravi, adding that this is understandable because anyone can come forward and claim to own a song. Thus, it is the agency’s job to ensure that a person’s song is an original and belongs to them.

Understanding the intricacies of music IP can be mind-boggling, especially when trying to figure out what each agency is supposed to cover. Musicians themselves can get confused with the process as it is not cohesive, says Yap, and this can act as a deterrent.

“By nature, music IP is complicated because it’s such a subjective thing. How do you say that you own this sequence of notes or music?

“We’ve spent a lot of time figuring this out and our artists benefit from it. We’ve also learnt that it’s not something that’s unique to Malaysia. IP and collecting royalties is a worldwide complication.”

Yap and Ravi took the time to figure out the complexities of music IP and copyrights, as the two are part of a band called Paperplane Pursuit, which they set up with two other musicians in the early 2010s. In 2015, the band broke into the US Billboard Mainstream Top 40 Indicator Chart with their single Feel Good and it later climbed the ranks to be ahead of big names such as Adam Lambert, Maroon 5 and Little Mix.

Yap says had it not been for their tireless efforts to understand the processes and importance of music IP and copyright, the band would have missed out on a lot of income, which grew 50 times when they hit the charts, compared with what they are earning as a popular local band.

“I studied the legal framework, how the money comes in and all the processes. And the money added up. It was difficult to make other people realise the importance but when the cheques started coming in after we went viral, we realised the value of doing this,” Yap says.

“And let’s be real. If you’re an artist, chances are your aim is to go viral and, if that’s your goal, why aren’t you doing the work to make sure that when it does blow up, you get your reward?”

Online distribution — an alternative revenue source

Owning music IP also allows artists to generate income from online streaming. Melvin Wong, head of distribution of Believe  Label & Artist Solutions in Malaysia and Singapore, shares that, typically, companies such as Believe handle the online distribution of songs, as they have a vast network of digital service provider (DSP) stores.

“When I say stores, I mean DSPs such as Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube Music, SoundCloud, Deezer and Tidal. The process is straightforward. Artists and labels will come to us and we do a licensing agreement with them. We then help them distribute songs to DSPs worldwide,” Wong explains.

He says every time the company distributes works of local artists, there is a clause in the contract to ensure that the artist or label applying has the rights to release content. This is to avoid copyright infringement, where some artists may have recorded a cover of a song but did not get the rights to make money out of it.

“Cover songs are legal in many ways but, many times, an artist has covered someone’s song and released it using their own name. Sometimes, these are taken down by DSP stores because they will need to make sure that the artist received proper consent and permission to use the song,” he explains.

“We encourage artists who distribute songs with any distributor to fully own the song, or at least make sure they have permission and consent that they have the right to release and distribute the track.”

DSP stores pay publishing royalties directly to the collecting bodies such as MACP, Warner Chappell Music, Universal Music Publishing Group or Sony Music Publishing, Wong explains. At Believe, the company will collect royalty for the audio streams and pay artists according to an agreed-upon percentage.

Another important aspect of online distribution is the metadata attached to a particular song. Music metadata is the collection of information that pertains to a song file, such as the artist’s name, producer, writer, song title, release date, genre and track duration.

A song’s metadata should be registered with the relevant agencies before it is brought to companies such as Believe, where the data will be inserted into its system as well. Wong says an artist can still distribute their songs to DSP stores if they do not register their songs (if it does not infringe on another artist’s IP), but they will risk not being paid in full.

Wong adds that an artist’s income depends on how many songs they have put out and to how many DSP stores. It is a simple equation: the more stores, the more royalties.

He says: “Imagine you have a hit song and somebody uses your song without permission and you don’t have publisher representation. What proof do you have that the song belongs to you?

“If a song gains traction on a DSP, there is revenue generated and the DSP will pay according to what is stated in the metadata. So, if you don’t have publisher representation, the DSP will not know who to pay and will hold the money back. This is why the metadata is so important.”

Marketing is key

Local independent artist Brendan James de Cruz says it has never been easier for artists to get their music out there with the help of social media platforms. Yet, with the amount of creative content being released daily, it can be hard to get your product noticed.

This is where marketing comes in, to get your content noticed and translate it into engagement with clients and, perhaps, projects, he says.

“Monetising your content is easy and very doable. Again, we go back to whether content is appealing to consumers and brings forth good online engagement, which then translates into monetary returns with platforms such as YouTube, Spotify, iTunes and TikTok,” he says.

“From what I have seen over the years, many get their content out and hope for things to happen. They hope to see near-immediate returns and that is just not how it works. Just like anything you expect returns from, you need to invest and, in this case, it’s time, effort, sacrifices, relationships, human connectivity and the list goes on.”

Believe’s Wong agrees, saying that publishing music on online platforms is half the battle. While online distribution is an avenue for artists to gain exposure and possibly earn an income, they still need to carry out their own marketing and promotion to drive up the streaming of their songs.

“It’s a clear volumes game when it comes to DSP stores. If you’re thinking that all you need to do to make money is to distribute your songs on DSPs, you’re mistaken. DSPs will make you money when you work to promote your songs,” he says.

“There are many elements that need to come together for an artist to make a significant income. Many artists don’t understand that but, in a nutshell, if you don’t promote your songs, you don’t make money.”

De Cruz saw this happen to one of his Malay songs, which made it on a Malaysian Spotify playlist called “Pop Terkini!”, which currently has more than 125,000 followers. He says the playlist was great exposure for him and his music, especially since his song stayed on the playlist for a couple of months.

Ravi advises artists and bands to first identify their target audience and position themselves on the right platform to access the desired end-users.

“If I were a pub musician, the people I’m probably trying to appeal to are working adults, whereas another artist might try to appeal to 15-year-olds. Both [groups of] people exist in different spaces online. So, for the former, perhaps YouTube or Facebook may work and, for the latter, TikTok and Instagram might be the platform of choice,” he explains.

Lack of education seems to be a big challenge in the local music industry. De Cruz says he learnt about the importance of registering his work only when he was exposed to other established artists in the local music scene.

“I had been writing my own songs and uploading them to music sites and, at that point, there was no push to professionally put my music out there,” he says.

“I worked at Merdekarya for a while and met artists who were recording professionally. When I decided to record my first song, these people told me to register it and where to go to do that. Otherwise, I would not have known.”

Wong says many artists do not understand the significance of having a proper online distributor, as companies such as Believe have access to more than 300 DSP stores in their network.

“Most just think that pushing their work on Spotify is sufficient. That’s just one store. What about the other 299 stores? Are you going to neglect them and any possible income from there?

“But at the same time, I don’t blame them for thinking that way because it’s all about branding. When we want to watch videos, we go only to YouTube. When we want to listen to songs, we go to Spotify. It’s easy to forget that there are other media out there.”

Wong also advises artists to get a proper distributor and publishing company to distribute songs and protect both artists and songs. Not many people understand how it works in the local music industry, and those who do have taken years to find their way around. Wong himself has been in the industry for 24 years.

Yap believes Breaking Music survives because it took time to understand the ins and outs of the local music industry. The company does all the necessary paperwork to protect artists and secure their royalties so they do not lose out on income owed. 

“Creative people just want to make the music, so that’s where people like us — publishers, online distributors and music managers — come into the picture. We exist to fill in the gap,” says Yap.

“It’s better for artists to just find these people to do it for them because a lot of these artists are very passionate about their music and don’t necessarily have an entrepreneurial mindset to do all the back-end applications.”

Ultimately, live performances need to be allowed again, says De Cruz. While there are other means of making money with music, the most income comes from live performances and the government needs to find a way to allow that to happen again as soon as it is safe to do so in the current pandemic landscape.

“Let’s say I play in cafés, pubs and restaurants five times a week; that would be more income than I would get from streaming sites or performing online. People want to be physically present to watch and listen to live music and have a good time,” he says.

Ravi concurs, adding that the industry cannot escape the fact that musicians need live shows to survive, so they need to be allowed to do so again, at some point. In fact, he notes, this is an opportunity for local musicians to step up, as international acts may not be able to travel to Malaysia for concerts anytime soon.

“We are so starved for entertainment; people will be willing to pay to watch bands play good music. There is an opportunity here for the local music scene because of the uniqueness of the pandemic. And industry players should take advantage of it.”


Consolidation needed for Malaysia’s music IP agencies

Music Authors Copyright Protection Bhd (MACP) protects the primary right of the songwriters of a song, that is, the person who came up with the idea of the song, from the melody to the lyrics. In Malaysia, this is called the songwriter’s right.

Breaking Music co-founder and director Andrew Yap says this means that no matter who wants to cover a particular song, if the artist and the song are registered with MACP, the agency will protect the artist.

“Let’s go back in time to when technology didn’t exist, perhaps the time of Johann Sebastian Bach. There were no CDs, cassette tapes and Spotify at that time. So, it was very hard to protect the primary right because artists need to prove that the idea came from them first,” he explains.

“Whereas now, probably the first person to put a song on Spotify is obviously the owner of the primary right. So, that’s the first form of royalty.”

MACP covers songs played in public areas as well. For example, if you were to go to a Starbucks, you would see an MACP sticker pasted on the door because the company would have paid the licensing fee to play songs on premises. Every time a song is played in public spaces such as malls or gyms, an artist gets royalties as well. This applies to Recording Performers Malaysia Bhd (RPM) and Public Performance Malaysia Bhd (PPM) too.

PPM protects the master holder of a song. A master recording is the official original recording of a song, sound or performance. It is also the source from which all the later copies are made, meaning that the primary right is used to produce something.

Yap uses the song Take Me Home, Country Roads by John Denver as an example. Denver is one of the primary right holders for the song and, perhaps, the original song was first done on vinyl. Olivia Newton-John did a cover of the song and perhaps had the original version of her song on a cassette tape. Both versions of the song are two different masters.

“Both artists can produce something different from that one primary right. The primary right is like the recipe for songwriters: the musical notes and lyrics. But that composition can take different forms; so, in this case, it’s the same composition, but two versions of the same song,” Yap explains.

“The logic is that the label paid for the creation of the master and came up with a product. PPM is supposed to take care of these master copies.”

RPM protects the individual performers involved in making a specific piece of music. For example, if someone played the drums for a track, they deserve a piece of the pie too and RPM protects their rights.

These are the three main music IP protection bodies, says Breaking Music co-founder and director Isaac Ravi, which holistically covers everyone involved in the entire music production process. All three bodies are to be under the purview of the Intellectual Property Corporation of Malaysia (MyIPO).

“In our band, Paperplane Pursuit, it was very straightforward because we were the songwriters, the master owners and also the performers. So, royalties from all three came to us. But, in the music industry, the reality is that the royalties usually go to three parties, which gets complicated,” Ravi says.

The simplest solution to make the process easier is to have one entity collecting royalties, which is then divided accordingly. In fact, there was an attempt to do that with the setting-up of Music Rights Malaysia Bhd (MRM) but the entity broke up within two years.

“I don’t know exactly why they dissolved, but the idea of having one collection agency was great. It’s sad that it fell apart really quickly,” says Ravi.

“MRM was a step in the right direction because, if you were a business owner and wanted to play music on your premises and you’re told that you need to pay licensing to all these three agencies separately to play music, most likely, you wouldn’t bother.

“We need a smoother collection process so compliance will be higher. In the end, it will benefit the whole music industry in general and be easier for the musicians who own the music to get paid for it.”