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An Exchange with SoundExchange on Unpaid Artists

The Money Belong to the Artists Who Created the Music

by FRED WILHELMS

SoundExchange is the sole entity that collects and distributes license fees for digital distribution of recordings; primarily satellite radio services and Internet streaming broadcasts (but NOT downloads). Over the years they have collected money for thousands of artists who don’t know about it.

Several years ago, John Simson, the Executive Director of SoundExchange, asked for my help in finding these people. I work primarily with veteran artists and have proven pretty proficient at finding people. Despite my constant prodding, SoundExchange never put me to work, and I finally washed my hands of the project when John told me he could give me the list of "unfound" artists, but only if I agreed to a Non-Disclosure Agreement. In essence, I could find out who they had money for, I just couldn’t tell anyone they were on the list.

What happens to the money they can’t pay because they can’t find the person to pay?

They get to keep it themselves. Nothing succeeds like failure.

In my email this morning was the following note from Simson:

Fred:

Given your concern on this issue I wanted to notify you that, after SoundExchange Board approval, we have posted a list of all performers who are oweð royalties from the period February 1, 1996 to March 31, 2000 and which are subject to release under Copyright Office regulations regarding undistributed royalties.

The list is on the website. Please call me if you have any questions or any ideas regarding our continuing efforts to locate featured performers.

Thanks in advance for any assistance in locating addresses or other contact information for any of the performers on this list.

Regards,

John

This was my reply:

John,

Thank you for the note.

I have already seen the list on your website. This is truly a prime example of "too little, too late." I understand why SoundExchange waited so long to publicize the list. It is, or at least it should be, a major embarrassment to the organization, and to everyone who has publicly said what a good job the organization has done finding people.

If my comments sound harsh to you, they should. You and I know how SoundExchange has failed to keep its promise, and how much more could have been done to prevent this injustice, and I just cannot put a positive spin on this.

In the first two hours after I had the list, and even before I had gotten completely through the "A" entries, I found five people you and your staff were not able to find in six years. And just so I’m clear on this, these were people I did not know when I started the search. At most, it took three telephone calls to find a current contact and pass on the information about registration. I actually came up with one by checking Directory Assistance in his hometown.

Sadly, there is no way I can spend the time necessary before the deadline to do everything I could to see that SoundExchange does the job it was given. There are just too many people on your "unfound" list, and I have clients who need my immediate attention. All I can do is reach out to as many people as possible in the limited time left and hope that my efforts start a landslide that swamps your office before December 15.

I may be wrong, but I suspect that, with the publication of the list, SoundExchange has abandoned any proactive efforts to locate the "unfound." I hope, for your sake, that after the deadline, you never hear one story about an artist being unable to afford a prescription, or getting evicted, and then you discover they were on the forfeited list. That prospect haunted me during my AFTRA days, and it still bothers me that I didn’t do enough to prevent it from happening over and over again.

I truly wish there was some penalty that SoundExchange would have to pay for not finding people. Instead, the organization profits from its own failure by getting to keep the money it should be paying out.

That’s a disgrace. Every time you deposit your paycheck, or get a bonus, or give one to someone else for a "job well done," or even expense a lunch, some of that money is coming from artists who never knew it was there because SoundExchange didn’t find them in time.

I know the search was not easy, and that there was really no possibility you were going to find everyone, or even almost everyone. You and I know, however, that SoundExchange didn’t do all that it could to cut that list to size. I think you are a good enough man to realize the scope of this failure, and I hope that it eventually impels you to do whatever it takes to make SoundExchange responsive to those it is supposed to serve. Today, for artists, the organization is nowhere close to meeting that goal.

Fred

Here’s the list of the people they can’t find:

http://63.236.111.137/jsp/unpaidArtistList.jsp

I’ve been circulating the following message. Feel free to forward it to any mailing lists, message boards and telephone poles in your neighborhood.

AN URGENT MESSAGE TO RECORDING ARTISTS

SoundExchange is the entity that collects and distributes broadcast royalties from digital distribution of music. This includes streaming Internet broadcasts (not downloads) and satellite radio services. These royalties have been payable since February 1, 1996. If your music has been played on the Internet since that date, you are entitled to a share of the royalties.

On December 15, 2006, any royalties that are unclaimed for performances up through March 31, 2000 WILL BE FORFEITED.

If you, as an individual or as a member of a recording group, are not registered with SoundExchange by December 15, 2006, you will lose all rights to your royalties earned before March 31, 2000.

There are thousands of identified artists who will lose these royalties unless they act before the deadline. SoundExchange has listed these "unfound" artists on their website.

http://63.236.111.137/jsp/unpaidArtistList.jsp

Take the time to read the list. If you are on it, follow the instructions for filing a claim. It costs you nothing and it does not take much time. If you register now, you will receive the unclaimed royalties and will received future royalties automatically.

Friends and families of recording artists should also check the list. If you know anyone on there, PLEASE LET THEM KNOW IMMEDIATELY. You will note that there are a number of deceased performers on the list. If you know any surviving relatives, let them know about this.

This money belongs in the hands of the artists who created the music.

http://63.236.111.137/jsp/unpaidArtistList.jsp

FRED WILHELMS is a lawyer who represents musicians and songwriters. He can be reached at: fred.wilhelms@gmail.com