“Questions” by Steve Sweeting and Will McMillan

I mentioned in my last blog post that I’ve been doing a lot of reading and watching educational videos about how the music industry works.

Today’s song — which I wrote with pianist/composer/songwriter Steve Sweeting many years ago — is perfectly themed for my current state of understanding (and lack thereof…)

In case you are the least bit curious, here’s a little of what I’ve been learning.

As a singer and songwriter, I am supposed to file for two types of copyright: sound recording (also known as the “master recording”) and song composition (of the actual song).

Song compositions generate payments to songwriters and music publishers — and sound recordings generate payments to recording artists and record labels.

So it turns out I need to learn how to wear four business hats: recording artist, record label, songwriter, and publisher.

Actually I also need to learn how to wear a publicist hat, a business manager hat, a booking agent hat, a social media/advertising hat — and the list goes on and on…

I have learned that sound recordings are given a unique ISRC code so that they can be tracked around the planet as they are downloaded, streamed, enjoyed via satellite radio, played in elevators as Muzak, etc.

In theory this tracking leads to various payment streams for the artist who recorded the song, their record company, the person (or team) who wrote the song, and their publishing company.

Also each original song composition is given a unique ISWC code for tracking purposes.

For example, Dolly Parton wrote and recorded “I Will Always Love You” when she made a very difficult decision to leave Porter Wagoner’s TV show.

This song has a unique ISWC code as a composition AND a unique ISRC code as her particular sound recording of it.

I loved reading in a 2012 interview about how Ms. Parton came to write this iconic song.

Porter and Dolly

“I was trying to get away on my own because I had promised to stay with Porter’s show for five years. I had been there for seven. And we fought a lot. We were very much alike. We were both stubborn. We both believed that we knew what was best for us. Well, he believed he knew what was best for me, too, and I believed that I knew more what was best for me at that time. So, needless to say, there was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going.”

She continued, “I thought, ’He’s never going to listen. He’s just going to bitch every day that I go in to talk about this.’ So I thought, ’Well, why don’t you do what you do best? Why don’t you just write this song?’ Because I knew at that time I was going to go, no matter what. So I went home and out of a very emotional place in me at that time, I wrote the song, ’I Will Always Love You.'”

“It’s saying, ’Just because I’m going doesn’t mean I won’t love you. I appreciate you and I hope you do great and I appreciate everything you’ve done, but I’m out of here. And I took it in the next morning. I said, ’Sit down, Porter. I’ve written this song, and I want you to hear it.’ So I did sing it. And he was crying. He said, ’That’s the prettiest song I ever heard. And you can go, providing I get to produce that record.’ And he did, and the rest is history.”

Since then her song has been recorded by a lot of other singers — most famously by Whitney Houston.

And each recorded version has its own unique ISRC code as part of its metadata (plus Dolly’s ISWC code for writing the song) so that it can be monitored — and monetized — via unimaginably vast banks of computers keeping track of playlists, streams, downloads, broadcasts, Muzak services, etc.

Right now the music industry is in the middle of a paradigm shift which began when digital recording technology and CDs arrived in our lives.

When I was first making music as a young adult — performing with a jazz pianist, in a folk duo, and as part of an original five-person pop/rock band — I earned money from live gigs and from the sale of cassettes and CDs.

That era is over…

Music has gone from being sold on an analog object — such as a piano roll, wax cylinder, record, or cassette tape — to being sold as a long string of zeros and ones.

The zeros and ones which encoded music onto CDs allowed us to make copies of songs using our computers… and then share those copies with the rest of the world.

We could share them with our other devices (such as an iPod), with our friends and family, and eventually — via sites like Napster — with anyone else on the planet who also had a computer.

And no one got paid for any of this free file sharing!

Since then the music industry has continued to evolve — with streaming platforms such as Spotify entering our lives — but revenues for recorded music are still way down.

And now we also have COVID-19 reducing opportunities for musicians to earn money from live performances.

In fact many small music venues in the Boston area have already closed their doors…with more likely to succumb in upcoming months.

Deep breath in.

Deep breath out.

It’s hard to know what’s coming next!

My current plan, since the wonderful Doug Hammer is not yet welcoming customers back into his recording studio in person, is to work with him remotely (using Zoom) and polish some songs we’ve recorded in past years.

And write a few more blog posts explaining what I am learning about the music industry.

And continue to wear a face mask when I leave my house.

And ride my bike and walk whenever possible.

And lead Music Together classes — both outside (wearing a new face shield + wireless headset) and inside via Zoom.

And give as much money as I can afford to various political candidates and non-profit organizations who are doing their best to prevent our country from lurching into an autocracy.

Another deep breath in.

And out.

Thank you to Pixabay for their lovely images.

Thank you to Steve Sweeting for writing songs with me and to Doug Hammer for helping us record a bunch of them.

And thank YOU for reading another blog post!

35 thoughts on “Questions…

  1. And thank you for your kind and compassionate ways Will. I enjoy your music and learning about the history of music like Dolly Parton’s song which I only know and like Whitney’s version. Best wishes with your musical hat career. 😍

    • Thank you for reading and listening! This post is just the beginning of the complexity… This morning I read a chapter in a music business book in which the author explains mechanical copyrights in the US and Canada compared with the rest of the world. It seems like every concept/topic has at least one exception or variable to be illuminated… I hope you remain mentally/physically/spiritually well during this challenging time on planet earth!

    • Thank you!!! I was recently recommended a book by a lawyer (who used to be a pop guitarist) named Donald Passman. It’s called ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE MUSIC BUSINESS, and I bought a copy of the newest — 10th — edition. It is written for the lay person but still contains at times mind-numbingly complicated details about the terms of different kinds of record/production details, etc. I am chewing through it one chapter at a time and trusting that gradually the important concepts will accurately coalesce in my brain. Deep breath in. Deep breath out. But these days I am mostly focused on political donations to strategic races up and down the ticket… Another deep breath in and deep breath out.

  2. My goodness, I learned so much here. This really is a complicated industry. I’m glad you’re learning and growing, writing and producing, teaching and singing…so many hats to wear. Thanks you for a fabulous post, Will. I hope there are more updates to follow. This post makes me feel like I’m on a great ride with you. And- the Dolly Parton & Porter Wagner story is terrific! Best to you, Will.

  3. Hi Will–very thoughtful blog post, I enjoyed reading it. It’s exactly what every songwriter is dealing with now, the lack of a revenue stream to repay hard and dedicated work (even though we love the work.) I’ll say that the only revenue I’ve ever seen from composing has been through ASCAP. They do a great job of tracking radio and TV play domestically and internationally. As far as tracing things like Spotify, I get occasional statements from CD Baby, but they’re inconsequential. I think the business model is going to have to change if songwriters are to thrive. Also, I was advised to just protect the material on my albums and not worry about protecting the actual recording–but you might feel differently about that.

    • Hurrah for ASCAP tracking performance royalties well! There is a totally new non-profit $$ collection organization created by recent legislation which will be funded by the Digital Service Providers (DSPs). It goes into effect early in 2021, I think. I am going to write about that as well as Sound Exchange (as you listed there?) in an upcoming blog post. So much to learn… and re-learn… and learn yet again as technology changes and laws try to catch up. Thank you for reading and listening and commenting, Didi!!!

  4. Yikes, my head is spinning! It is amazing how much you have learned. I hope it will eventually all flow to your advantage. In the meantime, I love your songs and am glad you’re still writing, singing and sharing them!

  5. I just felt I had to start following you now, partly because I have been aware of you and your interesting posts for some while and partly to show you that you have my wholehearted support for everything you and other members of the music industry do. Such a lot of research! So very little reward and help for all your work and creative skill and the pleasure you give us all. Music has been my go-to comfort during this pandemic. I don’t know how I would have coped while shielding for four months this summer if I hadn’t had music and songs to listen to. I am an old-fashioned girl who doesn’t stream music (I might put a link to a YouTube performance on my blog every now-and-then) and I much prefer owning physical copies of the music I listen to when I’m not listening to the radio than having to search for recordings to stream on-line. I have friends who sing and play instruments and compose and I therefore know the problems you speak about in this and your previous post.
    Best wishes,

    • Thank you for reading and listening and leaving such a comprehensive comment. I, too, do not use streaming services. I do not even own a cell phone. But I am determined to get up-to-date about music in the 21st century — which often seems to involve access from smartphones and other electronic devices — and recently joined Spotify since that is one of the places where my songs will soon start appearing… I read a blog post by another blogger recently about a wonderful area of rivers and marshes and wildlife in Norfolk (I think?) surprisingly near the coast. I have a strong sense that NOW IS THE TIME for us to stop using extra fossil fuels until we can — hopefully — regain some larger sense of ecological balance here on planet earth; so it is unlikely that I will fly to the UK any time soon. But maybe if I only ride my bike and walk for a few more years, I will eventually be able to justify a trip across the Atlantic. Until then I will savor blog posts written by you and other UK naturalists and historians.

      • My pleasure, Will and thank you very much for visiting and following my blog. I have seen your comments on Mike’s blog (A Bit About Britain) in the past and he recently posted about St Benet-at-Holm; is that the post you mean? Yes, such a wild and beautiful area and close to where I live. I also used to see your comments on Kerry’s blog (Kerrycan).
        We have been trying to cut down on plastics and endeavouring to live a ‘greener’ life too. It’s not easy!

      • I heard a long and informative interview on the radio yesterday about COVID-19 — and how even small changes in our collective behaviors (a few percent more of us wearing masks on a consistent basis, for example) can very much change the overall outcome of the pandemic. I hope this is also true for the MUCH more vast challenges of climate change and extinction were are also grappling with…

  6. Hello, Will; thank you for rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck into the nitty-gritty workings of the music industry, and casting light onto the flip side of an industry that many of us know little or nothing about. A fascinating and enjoyable post, thank you. Keep well.

    • “Stuck” is a perfect word to use, TheStork245! I definitely feel stuck in a swamp of partial understanding. But I will persevere… and remain very grateful for readers and listeners like you! Thank you for dropping by!

  7. It’s so important to hear from musicians “on the ground”…. Thank you! And what a flashback with Dolly…. I remember watching (sometimes in horror) the Porter Wagoner Show… It wasn’t the music but this weird parade of country music maleness… Dolly was the clear “window dressing” yet always out-performed the cast… Makes me see the complaints of women today in country music quite clearly. Thing have apparently not changed…And I now appreciate her business courage and savvy even more!

    • There’s a new book out about Dolly and her career written by a woman with great empathy for all of the class-related challenges Dolly has faced and overcome in addition to the male/female power dynamics she has had to deal with. It’s called SHE COME BY IT NATURAL by Sarah Smarsh. Reading it increased my respect for Ms. Parton even more — as a human being, as a songwriter, as a performer, as an actor, as a business mogul, and as a philanthropist/visionary.

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