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A Royalty Riddle

By Terry Joseph
April 13, 2004

WHILE some members of the Copyright Organisation (COTT) are developing anxieties over what they described as "dwindling royalties", one of their colleagues took home $60,000 last year by far the largest payout to a single composer in the agency's history.

Questions about the distribution of royalties came thick and fast two Saturdays ago at a meeting of COTT members, held at the Chancellor Hotel in St. Ann's. With some 20 new radio stations coming on stream during the past 15 years, they were puzzled by queries evoked some rather surprising answers.

The meeting, first in a series planned to bring COTT officials in closer touch with members nationwide, attracted a highly participative following, including former chairman and prolific lyrics man Alvin Daniell, Commentor, Cynthia Allen and Leston Paul. COTT directors Sonja Dumas and Terence O'Neil Lewis also heard addresses by CEO Allison Demas and documentation officer David Bereaux and media feedback from I-95.5FM marketing executive John Gill and this writer.

Composers Allen and Paul were among those who grilled COTT officials on the topic of royalties distribution, albeit from different perspectives, the latter saying his annual receipts were suddenly reduced to a trickle, even as the radio band spread became crowded with new frequencies.

Bereaux noted that the surge of new stations had not significantly impacted on the overall daily percentage of indigenous music broadcast content, so while collections increased, it didn't mean all local members would immediately benefit. In fact, according to his data, less local music was played on air in 2003 than in the year previous.

In addition, the arrangement that obtained when the Britain based Performing Rights Society (PRS) administered copyright matters here was that 30 percent of all collections stayed in Trinidad and Tobago for distribution among local members. A different formula was implemented theree years ago that requires COTT to base demand on behalf of its membership on actual figures and not a magic 30 per cent calculation.

"It sounds like bad arithmetic but it really isn't," said Demas. "We operate under a number of agreements based on reciprocity and even the ten percent retention of collections is not precise. In fact, the average daily local content among broadcasters often falls below the ten per cent line and is buffered by collections from live concerts and other entertainment events using local music.'

"Because payments to our members are based on an aggregate of broadcast, live performance and other avenues of collection, we are able to afford such payments but the reality is that Trinidad and Tobago is not generating enough licensing fees for composers of its indigenous music. It is why we have actively joined the lobby to have a legislated daily minimum for broadcasters," Demas said.

"It is not a level playing field. The massive marketing mechanisms used by metropolitan operations immediately put local members at a disadvantage," she said. "There is no way one of our members could match the outlay that the average recording company would cough up to back a new release by of its acts.

"Consequently, that music reaches even our radio stations faster and with a multi-media approach to publicity, the radio presenter is likely to know much more about the foreign artiste than locals and give those songs more time on air, even if the local and foreign acts did exactly the same music.

"We firmly believe that Government must play a more visible and legislative role, to the extent of shoring up the fledgling local music industry. It has been done in countries like Canada, Brazil and France and even in our own neighbourhood in Jamaica, where a different appro9ach was used to achieve the same effect of people in the particular country being exposed to more indigenous music.

"Even if our collection systems become more exacting, we are still working for foreign interests, turning over the major portion of each dollar collected, while in the US, for instance, they do not worry with small operations like those radio stations that play music from Trinidad and Tobago so, in the final analysis, the local artistes are really left to fend for themselves in an industry run and sometimes manipulated by giant foreign corporations," Demas said.

For the financial year 2002, COTT collected $5,753,851 and recorded a net surplus for royalties distribution of $3,464,430, of which some 28 per cent went to local members. Last year's figure leapt to a gross of $7.7 million but payout is yet to be fully determined. What seems clear, however, is that the figure retained by the local agency for distribution may not rise by the same proportion.

Interestingly, about ten percent of COTT's 960 members share in 90 per cent of the bounty, because their songs are so overwhelmingly popular both on radio and on demand for live performances. "Some members find it difficult to accept the fact that popularity of their works may have slipped, causing a fall in revenue from this source," Demas said.

Things are looking up regardless. Just a few years ago, in 1995, the largest single payout of royalties was $21,000. By last year it had almost tripled. "We believe that by taking another look at the figures, Government should see the error in its call on this issue," Demas said. "Returns from television showed that in 2002 on that medium, less that two percent of music played was of local origin.

"We find it curious, the urgency with which Government becomes involved in stabilizing the price of any other kind of product, be it flour, chicken, rich or hardware but washes its hands and walks away from any issue involving this country's indigenous music," Demas said.

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