Life@Kobalt: Making Sure Songwriters Get Paid in the Digital Era with Sara Jackson
In the complex, digital frontier of the “new” music industry, a primary source of income for songwriters of all levels and genres is oftentimes licensing. And while placements are the goal, it sometimes takes dogged persistence to make sure that creators are receiving every cent due to them and reduce the risk of “black-boxing” — money slipping through the cracks instead of writers’ pockets.
Eleven years ago, Sara Jackson came to Kobalt as a temp assistant. Today, she oversees day-to-day operations of all US admin for Kobalt Music Publishing America, which includes mechanical/digital licensing, income tracking and royalty processing, and YouTube database maintenance. One of her major priorities is making sure that Kobalt clients’ work is licensed, paid properly, and on time, nose to tail, for all US usages other than performance and sync.
During her more-than-a-decade tenure, Sara has helped build and refine the collection processes used across the board, as well as recruit a “cracker-jack, first-class” team of experts who “aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and fulfill all of the promises we make to our clients that people said weren’t possible,” she says. And when payments are black-boxed, well, Sara and her team work to recover those monies for Kobalt clients.
Recently, we had a chance to chat with Sara about the changes she’s experienced moving from the physical world to digital, and what licensing and royalty collection might look like in the future.
Q: Over the past 11 years you’ve been at Kobalt, what’s been the biggest change in the way music licensing works in the digital era?
There’s definitely more of it. When I started, the focus was mostly just on physical product, dealing with individual labels and one product at a time, securing licenses for each songwriter. Now, it's moved much more to a Spotify/Apple, platform way, like a DSP.
We try to deal directly with the DSPs as much as we can to make sure that we have control over what's being used, that our catalog is represented, and we're getting paid. It's gone from an individual, product-by-product level to more of an all-encompassing, catalog type of agreement/license.
It's much easier to get our stuff out there and make it more accessible, but in the same way, on the accounting end, the tracking of those micro-transactions has become a lot more difficult. When we did it for physical products, on the label end, there were a lot of little licenses to keep track of and make sure things were getting licensed at the right rates and percentages.
That tracking happened much easier because everything was tied to a product that you could track with Soundscan. It was like a chain, and now it’s everywhere.
Q: One of your main objectives is to make sure clients are compensated fairly for any mechanical usages. How has the process of chasing and tracking those collections evolved? What are the challenges?
Before, we had always licensed everything directly, so whoever we licensed with, we got payment directly from that person. Now, a lot of the DSPs and the bigger digital companies have payments sent via a slingshot service like Music Reports or Harry Fox. The accounting that we're getting is coming from a second-hand source.
We have to make sure that we’re properly reflected in all of these databases that are secondary databases to make sure that we're getting paid.
Q: How do you see royalty collections evolving in the future?
I see it becoming more streamlined and artists having more of an input.
Everybody — across labels and publishers in general — is thinking that the way that things are working right now is too difficult. We should all be sharing information a lot more than we already do.
I think we have to open up as an industry to work together a little bit more and not be so scared about sharing specific information that could benefit everyone in the long run of identifying through all these other different companies that are popping up and keeping things a little bit more clouded and that keeps everybody from finding stuff.
Q: In regards to the team here at Kobalt, what do you think are the major factors they posses that ensure the royalty collections process runs smoothly?
I think what we're really good at and what I'm proud of is not being satisfied with the work that we're doing, the level of what we're accomplishing now, and always trying to go beyond that and find holes and things that we can improve.
We spend a lot of time self-analyzing our own work to try to figure out, is this running fast enough? Are we not improving something we could, just because we've done it for five years?
The landscape of the music industry is changing so fast that we have to be able to adapt along with that and how we work.
The managers on my team and myself, we specifically get together and aren't afraid to raise issues like, "I think I can do this five times quicker if I had this tool or if we analyze this a little bit differently or I think a client came back to us and was asking questions and I don't know that we even look at this," or ask questions like, "Is this something we can add to the process?"
Everything is valuable. Everything is changeable. That makes us lean and fast and able to change with, I think, the current statuses. We have a great relationship with the UK office and the tech team over there and we get a lot of their help and input on what is possible and what's not possible, because we have a lot of dreams.
Q: How does Kobalt operate differently from other publishers or collections societies?
I think it's the embracing of the transparency aspect of the Kobalt ethos.
I think that's the one that really hits us the most. Also, we're here for our clients, and being client-forward thinking in that way. The transparency feeds into that. It's client number one, always. Whatever we're doing, we're doing for them, and we want to look for their best interest. I'm not saying that other publishers don't do that, but we take it to an extreme as like, this is our whole goal. In order to do that, we have to give them as clean data as possible as fast as we can.
Our [royalty] processing is spectacularly fast. In one quarter, it comes in and goes out at the end of that quarter. We don't fool around with that, but we hold a very high standard of accuracy. We definitely take that very seriously in those two aspects. We want to give them as much information as we get.
Q: How does the technology that Kobalt has developed affect what you do?
It makes our job a little bit easier, and engages the client more with us a little bit because they can see what’s happening in real time. If they have questions about income streams that are coming in, they're seeing basically everything that we're seeing. It also keeps us on our toes, which I think is good, too.
Q: Do you find that as the digital side evolves, more and more artists are looking to be more involved in their own royalty collections?
Some are, yeah. We have clients that we do communicate with on a regular basis that are interested. We want to educate them. They want to learn, which is exciting.
I think that informing the songwriter community and the artist community, is just as important as doing a good job on our end, because it's arming them to the ability to thrive and survive in this new climate as well. If they're doing good, we're doing good. It doesn't benefit us to keep them in the dark about their money, about how the processes go. We want to take them along for the ride and we want them to grow along with how the industry is growing.
As digital licensing and royalty collections continue to evolve, it’s important for songwriters to not only understand how their money is being accounted for and paid but also how to take control and educate themselves. At Kobalt, we love empowering our clients with complete transparency when it comes to how and where they’re earning income. Take a look at all of the publishing services we offer here.