Irving Azoff Threatens to Yank 20,000 Songs From YouTube (Exclusive)

The industry heavyweight, representing Pharrell Williams and others, believes that YouTube hasn't made all necessary deals for its new subscription service and is prepared to take his clients off of the YouTube ecosystem
 Jeffrey Mayer/Universal Music Group

Many works composed by popular musicians including The Eagles, Pharrell Williams, Boston, Foreigner, John Lennon, Smokey Robinson, Chris Cornell, and George and Ira Gershwin could soon be removed from YouTube.

On Wednesday, just as Google announced the coming launch of YouTube Music Key, its much-anticipated subscription service that will compete with Spotify and Pandora, music industry heavyweight Irving Azoff told The Hollywood Reporter that he is prepared to take 42 of his clients, representing some 20,000 copyrighted works, away from the YouTube ecosystem, including the new Music Key. The move is a huge shot across Google's bow, perhaps even more significant than Taylor Swift's much-discussed decision a week ago to remove her songs from Spotify over doubts about royalties.

Azoff is the former chairman of Live Nation who is now spearheading a new venture, Global Music Rights (GMR), aimed at extracting higher performance rights royalties for songwriters. Traditionally, those rights have been handled by ASCAP and BMI, which have been hamstrung by consent decrees with the Justice Department that requires a license be given whenever an outlet requests it.

Although the DOJ is currently reviewing the consent decrees, Azoff is moving quickly and has a message that appeals to many songwriters: As consumers gravitate more and more to streaming services in lieu of purchasing music, these services should be contributing more compensation to the ones who compose the music.

"The way fans listen to music is evolving daily," says Azoff. "GMR is going to give songwriters and publishers an opportunity to engage in meaningful licensing for their intellectual property. The trampling of writers' rights in the digital marketplace without any regard to their contribution to the creative process will no longer be tolerated."

The big record labels have already made deals with YouTube, owned by Google. But earlier this year, controversy erupted when smaller independent labels reacted negatively to the licensing terms being offered. At one point, there was even speculation that works from Adele, The White Stripes, Radiohead and Vampire Weekend would be blocked from YouTube, but in the last 24 hours came reports that Merlin, representing thousands of small labels around the world, had come to terms with YouTube.

Those deals would only cover sound recording rights, though, which have traditionally brought in the bulk of revenue from digital services.

The owners of songwriter or publishing rights, on the other hand, have long struggled to see significant compensation from digital services. In past years, publishers have employed a variety of strategies to rectify this — suing over novelties like ringtones and targeting YouTube specifically for allowing users to embed videos with music.

Most recently, the publisher war against YouTube has been fairly quiet — with ASCAP and BMI making deals with the online video service — instead focusing its attention on Pandora. Universal and Sony have made direct deals with Pandora, which is currently in the midst of a dispute over rates with song publishers. But not everyone has forgotten about YouTube, which according to a recent Nielsen survey, is more popular among teenagers for music than radio.

Irving Azoff certainly has not forgotten.

Randy Grimmett, who works with Azoff at Global Music Rights, points to publisher deals with Pandora and says the same thing needs to happen as far as YouTube is concerned. He says "there's no business to be built upon unlicensed works," and adds that there needs to be "parity" between the songwriter's side and the record owner's side of the industry.

Unlike ASCAP and BMI and the publishers they represent, Azoff and Grimmett have more negotiating leverage for doing direct deals with digital services, and so on Tuesday, they are going public in an attempt to get YouTube to acknowledge that more licensing work needs to be done.

We will update with any response from YouTube.

Email: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner

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