How To Cover a Song – HFA

How To Cover a Song – HFA

This interview was first posted in July, 2010. Editor’s Note:  Artists should always consult a lawyer before covering songs for the latest copyright and licensing information.

 

Maurice A. Russell has been in the music business for nearly two decades and is a sought-after music licensing expert. He started his career at Polygram Records then moved to Red Ant Entertainment, Razorfish Studios, and Machine Enterprises, Inc., before landing at The Harry Fox Agency, Inc. (HFA) in 2002. He is currently the Senior Vice President of Client Services and oversees all client support functions including Client Services, Licensing, Data Management and Marketing and Communications. Additionally, he is responsible for all relationship management activities associated with publishers, music distributors and HFA’s Slingshot rights administration clients.

 


Musician Coaching:

 

Maurice, thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. First of all, what led you to leave your last post as founder and CEO of Machine Enterprises and join the team at HFA?

 

MR:

 

I really wanted to get back into the nuts and bolts of the music business and an opportunity presented itself to come to work for HFA. The job appealed to me because I had never worked on the publishing side and with everything else that was going on in the business publishing seemed a lot more stable. At that time, HFA was going through a major cultural and technological transformation, which I found to be not only interesting, but also challenging given their 80-year history. I’ve been here for about eight years, and it’s been really fun and exciting. The music industry has changed so much in the last decade and we at HFA have accomplished a tremendous amount to keep pace with the business. I’m fortunate to work with a dynamic management team and to have a very experienced staff supporting me. HFA has done a lot to improve the way things are managed on this side of the business through technology and better processes.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What is your role there?

 

MR:

 

I run two operating departments:  licensing and collections. I’m also heavily involved with our digital and business strategies and work closely with our business development department.

 

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Musician Coaching:

 

I have found that HFA is a company that has a role that is often misunderstood by artists. What exactly does the company do?

 

MR:

 

Basically, we represent publishers for mechanical rights. We issue licenses and collect and distribute royalties on their behalf. A mechanical license is needed when a musical composition is recorded and distributed to the public by someone other than the owner or controlling party of that composition. Additionally, HFA provides a variety of outsourced administration services providing back-office solutions to facilitate rights management in what has become a very complex landscape. (Editor’s Note:  These services were re-branded as “Slingshot,” HFA’s rights management service, in early 2012.)

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Do you have a direct interface that’s available for musicians to get a mechanical license for releasing cover songs?

 

MR:

 

Yes, it’s an online tool called Songfile and it is designed for non-commercial entities like schools, churches, and bands that need to get licenses for the distribution of a relatively small quantity of recordings – up to 2500 units. You can search our database online and obtain a license with a credit card.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You’re talking about a certain number of units, which classically meant manufacturing. How does this work with digital?

 

MR:

 

It includes digital mechanicals as well such as full digital downloads and ringtones. We recently launched the ability to license on-demand streams.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Tell me about the process involved in commercially releasing a cover song.

 

MR:

 

The first thing you need to know is the information about the songs you’re going to be covering. You can search our database to see if we represent the publisher and the song. Unfortunately we don’t represent all publishers, but we do represent most in the United States. You want to look to see if we represent it 100 percent, or if there are any shares we don’t represent. You can license what we represent on Songfile.  It’s very easy, and the instructions are on the website. You can purchase the license with a credit card in a few minutes. You can be licensed within a day because it is electronic.  If we don’t represent the publisher, you need to reach out to them directly to get a license. You would want to start with the HFA database because we do represent most of the publishers.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

Are you finding that more or less publishing companies are coming to you these days? How has the business changed since the Internet has made direct contact with publishers easier?

 

MR:

 

People need concentration of rights, because it’s quite labor intensive to reach out to thousands of publishers. HFA has developed the premier rights-holder approved database in order to help determine who owns what. Because a lot of the songs have common song titles it’s not as simple as just having the song title information. You need writers to help distinguish between common titles. What we find is that more publishers are coming to us to license things like subscription services. Songfile is very attractive for a publisher because it’s commission free. We have many publishers that come to us specifically for that.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

What about RightsFlow’s product LimeLight – is that a product that is in competition with Songfile?

 

MR:

 

One of the key distinctions between the services offered by HFA and those of others is that our services rest upon our direct relationship with nearly all active U.S. publishers as well as a substantial number of foreign rights societies. We have their data and their licensing information pushed to us on a real-time basis. And the important thing to understand about publishing is that the ownership data is not static. Songs change hands constantly almost like the stock exchange. You need to know in real time who owns what. Because of our relationships with our publishers, we have the most up-to date song information. Other services that aren’t based upon a large, publisher-approved database simply can’t assure their licensees that the licenses they issue are accurate. We welcome competition, in part, because we believe that the comparison of our products and services with those offered by others reveals consistently superior options.  And frankly, in many cases, our competitors are obtaining a significant number of their licenses from us and charging their clients for it.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

And how does HFA make money?

 

MR:

 

Commissions that come from what the publishers get, so we take the royalties and draw a commission of 8.5 percent and pass the remainder over to the publishers. So the licensees, with the exception of those using Songfile, aren’t paying for rights. The publishers are.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

I’ve done a lot of licensing work and bulk licensing at the label group level. I always think somebody is going to come along and fix a lot of the problems with housing all of the metadata involved with a database of compositions but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Has there been any progress on that front?

 

MR:

 

The aggregation of data in one place is an issue. HFA has probably one of the largest rights management databases in the world, and our database is growing exponentially because of what’s going on in the digital world, and the fact that a lot of publishers are not able to keep up with the technical requirements that are required for licensing in this environment. We really see ourselves as leading the way to creating that global solution. However, I think one of the big problems is that there are no data standards in the music industry. Everyone has their own database and their own data structure. Some companies have writer fields in their database where all the names – first, middle, last – are put together, and all the writers are put together. So when you talk about exchanging data for licensing and royalties between multiple organizations, it’s a real challenge because everybody is speaking a different language. When you’re trying to do automated matching to facilitate transactions of high volume, it presents a real problem.

 

There are initiatives afoot, like Digital Data Exchange (DDEX). DDEX is an industry initiative that’s designed to standardize the transmission of data between companies. HFA is a charter member of DDEX, and I actually serve on the licensing subcommittee. We have others at HFA that are heavily involved. DDEX is definitely picking up steam across the industry with labels and the digital companies. The one caveat is that a data standard for transmission and messaging doesn’t change the underlying data. So what you’ve got is a lot of companies that have legacy data that doesn’t conform to any standards. The hope is that if you change the way messaging works, over time companies as they try to conform to that message will adopt similar data standards, and that’s how we will standardize.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

It sounds like a huge undertaking.

 

MR:

 

This is good stuff. It’s fun. This is a once-in-a-lifetime career opportunity to work on this stuff.

 

Musician Coaching:

 

You have had a unique perspective on the business given your current and past positions- do you have any general advice for people trying to make a living at music?

 

MR:

 

Just remember that there’s music, and there’s the music business. And your career is, first and foremost, driven by your talent. But it’s sustained in the music business, and you need to understand the music business well. Don’t rely too heavily on other people to interpret it for you.

 

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