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Musicians Are Leaving $31 Million From Digital Music On The Table

Music industry group SoundExchange has released list of 50,000 bands who are owed digital download money. Meanwhile, the debate about whether artists are adequately compensated continues to rage.

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SoundExchange, the music industry's digital royalties group, has launched a searchable database of over 50,000 individuals and bands who are owed in excess of $31 million in unclaimed money from streaming and download royalties. It's effectively pleading: Musicians, take your money.

The thing is, if you're an artist, to get your money, you have to sign up with SoundExchange. From its website:

The unclaimed royalties, ranging from $10 to more than $100,000, have been collected by SoundExchange during the past decade. Those that are not included on the list, and have not yet registered with SoundExchange, are encouraged to also register to receive future digital radio royalties.

SoundExchange, though a non-profit, is not an uncontroversial entity — it collects money for artists, whether artists want it to or not. In March, Sirius XM launched an antitrust suit against SoundExchange, alleging that it was blocked when it tried to deal with labels directly. One Stanford lawyer has called for SoundExchange's demise as there is "no rationale" for these groups to take a cut of the earnings as they trickle down to artists or songwriters. Others, though, say that SoundExchange is a necessary force: It allows all artists, no matter how big or small, to recoup their money from digital royalties.

And the money is flowing from digital. Earlier this summer, SoundExchange announced that it had collected $1 billion in royalties; Warner Music now says that digital accounts for 25 percent of its revenue. Today, Ars Technica reported that digital sales will overtake physical record sales this year in the United States — a phenomenon announced in Britain in early June.

As all this is happening, the conversation about who is profiting (and to what degree) from streaming and other digital services continues. One artist, whose music was played over 70,000 times on Spotify, noted that she earned less than $300 as a result because of the way that Spotify treats major labels versus indies. And earlier this summer, there was an uproar over an NPR intern who confessed that she didn't really buy music anymore.

At the very least, musicians should check out the SoundExchange database and get their free money. But music consumers should be increasingly cognizant of the way the online culture of free is evolving — as David Lowery's rejoinder to the NPR intern explained, paying for music is a matter of ethics. Where the money goes, though, is still not clear.

Contact Reyhan Harmanci at

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