Do you know who is handling your music? You sign up with a digital distributor like CD Baby. . Perhaps you are an artist that selected all the services and options (e.g., Youtube, streaming, etc.). Hopefully, next thing you know, your content is everywhere. All is good. Right? Not always.
A recent article at Techdirt highlights a growing problem in the digital distribution community: Transparency. The main issue with this story is the trend for digital distributors to outsource a key revenue stream, Youtube’s content matching system. In this case, CD Baby utilized Rumblefish to manage their Youtube monetization process. (This system is a fingerprinting technology that can automatically recognize when a video has a certain sound recording in it. Then the administrator of this content – in this case, it was Rumblefish and not CD Baby - can decided to monetize the video by placing ads or issuing a takedown or do nothing.)
I don’t blame companies for trying to maximize their revenue streams. That is what artists and labels want from their distributors (physical or digital). But the process has become layered and opaque. It needs to be more transparent.
With Rumblefish, CD Baby fostered a typical channel conflict between Youtube and the original artist. The artist received a notice that Rumblefish was claiming rights to the artist’s song and that there would be ads placed on the video. Ordinarily, this would not necessarily be a bad thing. After all, Youtube’s ad revenues are providing significant income for a lot of indie artists.
In this situation, however, the artist had no idea why Rumblefish was making the claim. The band actually held the copyright to the song themselves and had signed on to do business with CD Baby, not Rumblefish. The automatic email notification from Youtube did not even have an email contact for Rumblefish.
The transparency issue gets even cloudier when the artist visited Rumblefish’s home page. At first glance, it looks like all they do is sync placement for film/TV/ads. Only the truly persistent and inquisitive artist would find the FAQ page and the proper email to voice their objections. Unfortunately, a less than sympathetic employee responded to the artist and reasserted Rumblefish’s authority to monetize the artist’s video . Clearly, CD Baby and RumbleFish had not anticipated this conflict. Nor had they developed a plan on how to respectfully deal with the artist’s reasonable complaints.
The problem in this scenario is not related to outsourcing or sub-distribution. Every distributor uses third party resources to one degree or another. There are always situations where it may be better, faster, and/or cheaper to subcontract versus doing it in-house. The challenge for distributers is to allow transparency without giving up their primary responsibility of customer service.
Some distributors might want to hide the man behind the curtain. That can be fine if the distributor takes responsibility for any conflict resolution. Unfortunately, secrecy usually wins and the client (the artist or label) is left wondering who to contact. When a non-transparent situation arises, it is further compounded by the immense size of most distributors. CD Baby handles 10,000's of artists and labels. Youtube claims from this large a catalog can exceed 100,000’s per month. It is no wonder that CD Baby decided to allow a third party to manage their Youtube account and deal with all of the disputed claims. It was a simple calculation of resource allocation versus ROI.
As with most complaints about the digital marketplace, it all falls down to customer service. The digital landscape is rife with channel. This is the nature of the beast and cannot be fully avoided. Outsourced customer service is another inherent flaw that seems to be the result of scalability and cost cutting.
The artist’s music is their single greatest asset. When they choose a company to distribute it, they are placing an immense amount of trust in that company. Transparency is the only way to maintain the trust and confidence to permit distributors to maintain their client relationships. In the case with CD Baby and Rumblefish, a little transparency would have gone a long way to avoid the anger and frustration that that Artist must have felt.