Thoughts from a Working Musician in Nashville | by Justin Ahmanson | Muserk | Nov, 2020

“Nashville has a long history of songwriting.”

This was something that I heard over and over when I moved here in the fall of 2017. At the time, I didn’t understand that this statement was actually an insight into how the music industry operates. To me, the word “songwriter” wasn’t much different from the word “artist” or “musician.” I had grown up playing songs by my favorite artists as well as writing and performing my own songs. It was all music to me. It wasn’t until later that I realized the music industry operates on some very clear distinctions — particularly in Nashville.

One of the first shows I went to in Nashville was at a down home type venue called Belcourt Taps. The show was an “in the round” style showcase where four different songwriters sat on stage side by side and took turns playing a song they had recently written. I had never encountered this type of show in Austin where I had moved from, but I got the sense it was standard practice here. To my surprise, one of the songwriters, in particular, was a very bad musician. His guitar playing was filled with missed notes and he struggled to sing in tune. But what was fascinating, was he didn’t seem to care at all. He was more interested in the audience, trying to gauge their reaction to his songs. I quickly realized that he had no interest in performing these songs on his own. His goal was to refine his songs down to their most entertaining form — that three-and-a-half-minute gem. It reminded me of how a comedian works on a joke over and over until he or she gets it just right. This was my first insight into how the music industry makes a clear distinction between artists and songwriters.

About a year later, I began working for Muserk as a software developer. Muserk is a global rights administrator that leverages technology to perform its duties with an exceptional level of speed and scale. I was intrigued by the opportunity to combine my tech career with my love of music. Furthermore, it was a chance to learn more about the business side of the music industry, something I thought would be useful in my own music endeavors.

As soon as I started, I was thrown into (sink or swim as the saying goes) the very complicated world of rights management. One of my first projects was developing what would later be known as M-Match — our proprietary AI technology used for finding works in the vast ocean of DSP data. Through this I then learned the intricacies of one way the music industry makes money.

The music industry makes money from two copyrights: one for the underlying work or composition and the other for a sound recording. In practice, there are two types of businesses that form around this: publishers (songwriter/work) and labels (artist/sound recording). So, if you have a song playing on Spotify, let’s say, a portion of the money that is generated from that song should find its way to the label/artist and a portion should find its way to the publisher/songwriter/s. You may think (as I did) that a company like Spotify would know all of this in advance and take care of it. That is not the case.

One of the big problems is that the label and publishing worlds don’t really talk to each other. So, a label will push a song to Spotify and not provide (and in some cases even know) any information about the underlying songwriters. Therefore, Spotify won’t know where to send the publisher/songwriter portion of the money. This is a fairly simplified but accurate account of what happens.

This is where Muserk shines. We spend most of our time matching songwriter related metadata to sound recordings so that we can collect and distribute the appropriate royalties. In the age of digital music this isn’t an easy task. We use all kinds of technology, processes, and insight to match as much data as possible. We’re constantly trying to innovate so that we can match works fast, accurately and at scale. I spend most of my time building this technology and creating ways to convey its results. I feel proud knowing that the work I do contributes to getting musicians paid what they’re owed.

As a musician, my time at Muserk thus far has opened my eyes to how the music world really works. I’ve learned that businesses dedicate themselves entirely to very small pieces of the industry. In Nashville, for instance, there are networks of people that are just trying to write the next hit song and could care less about recording or performing it. Concurrently, there are networks of people trying to be the next big artist and could care less about writing their own songs. For me, I’m still trying to figure out where I fit in. But having a broader understanding of the industry as a whole I know will help me navigate my own musical journey. And, of course, my metadata will be correct.

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