Just about two years ago now, Taste of Country posted a new video on their popular “RISERS” series, which features new-ish country musicians whose careers are on the rise performing a cover song. That video now has almost 12 million views and counting, that Riser was Morgan Wallen, and that performance was his first time publicly covering a crown jewel from Jason Isbell’s hugely celebrated 2013 breakout record, Southeastern - aptly titled “Cover Me Up”.
After a sharp and fast upward trajectory leading to sell out arena gigs across the United States, there are now a wide variety of clips to choose from showing Wallen singing the cover, along with what now seems like unimaginably large crowds of swaying and cell phone-waving young people. In that original video though, with his trademark mullet and a plain white t-shirt - sleeves surprisingly intact - most of us were first introduced to Wallen as he perched on a stool with an acoustic guitar and performed a moving rendition of a beautiful work. He’s talked about his own fandom for Jason Isbell and how the song is personal for him; Wallen’s cover is an earnest example of a musician living the old adage of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery.
Professionally, I booked Morgan Wallen for his first performance in Canada at one of North America’s largest country festivals. I found immense joy in seeing him become emotional at the outpouring of support for his music from a wild audience; that connection between the fans of the music and the musician is lovely to witness and never gets old. However personally, I prefer to go see songwriters more in the style of Jason Isbell and Donovan Woods to fill up my cup, feed my soul. Neither style is right or wrong - in fact, what I love most about talent buying is knowing that I am the logistical and business conduit to bring an artist’s art to the doorstep of the masses who wish to see it performed live in front of them. There is an audience for every style and genre of music, there is a perfectly sized room to be found for every act, and despite a regular amount of individual hurdles and hardships each of us experiences in our daily lives (not to mention pandemics!), it’s long been established that we have evolved as a species to search out music for our enjoyment, mourning, and healing.
All of that said, the following two statements are truths that wouldn’t surprise anyone who is even remotely involved with or interested in country music: 1) the definition of “country music” expands across a broad stylistic spectrum including unambiguous subcategories such as Americana, Bro, Heritage, New, Pop, Rock, Roots, Traditional; and, in that vein, 2) Morgan Wallen and Jason Isbell do not occupy even remotely the same subcategory of country music. The topics of recent (social) media attention for each of them, respectively, serves to starkly highlight that Isbell and Wallen - in their image, musical style, brand, dynamic with fans - reside on disparate planets within the same universe called Country Music.
So back to that original video: the pearl-clutching from Isbell purists over Wallen covering this song was to be fairly expected. For the most part, the negativity toward Wallen seemed to come from a place of offense that someone from the opposite team of country music would dare perform such a masterpiece. This us v them positioning was only amplified when Wallen released a studio version of the cover in early April 2019 and, even with little promotion, saw it hit the Billboard chart.
But here’s the thing: Jason Isbell didn’t mind. He wrote an incredible song, and inspired another musician to sing it - isn’t the raison d’etre of music to be shared and experienced with others? In a series of tweets that both grants his fans a reprieve from their misguided anger and also gives Wallen some props for his rendition, Isbell shows his kindness and camaraderie in the spirit of a brilliant song that, let’s be honest, will undoubtedly become a modern country standard with many-a-cover in its future. (And if this is the direction we’re headed for the quality of what’s required for new country standard inductees, I think we can all agree this is the right path forward toward another prolific era of country music.)
The best and most important part as far as Jason Isbell’s Business Manager is concerned is this: as the songwriter, Mr. Isbell gets paid every time Morgan Wallen, or anyone for that matter, performs his song publicly. And the bigger the audience, the more money he stands to earn. This certainly isn’t unique; there are countless examples of songwriters earning Mailbox Money from live performance royalties generated by the performance of their songs by other artists. Jimi Hendrix performed “All Along the Watchtower”, and Bob Dylan got paid; Whitney Houston performed “I Will Always Love You”, and Dolly Parton got paid; Patsy Cline performed “Crazy”, and Willie Nelson got paid.
So here’s how it works.
THE PERFORMING RIGHTS ORGANIZATION (PRO):
Every country has an* organizing body that is responsible for the collection and distribution of performance royalties on behalf of songwriters. By taking a percentage of the ticket sales from the promoter of a concert, and through general licenses for smaller venues, they facilitate proper royalty distributions for live shows. This type of organization is called a Performing Rights Organization (PRO) and each country names their PRO something different with a mandatory cute acronym: “SOCAN” in Canada, “APRA” in Australia, “GEMA” in Germany, to name but a few. In its simplest explanation, the PRO is the Robin Hood-esque middleman who takes money in from those who owe it and sends it out to whom it’s due. The exact percentage collected varies by country and is signed into law by each country’s legislature. It can be quite lucrative for a songwriter to earn live performance royalties from some European countries, which collect well north of 10% for concerts, while in the U.S it’s approximately 1% of gross ticket sales.
*In the United States, there are not one but 4 Performing Rights Organizations for an artist or songwriter to choose to be a member of with nuanced differences between them. Because, America.
When it comes to live concert performances, the royalty payment owed to and (eventually) distributed to the songwriters of each song performed that night is paid by the promoter of the show - that is, the person who is taking the financial risk and responsibility to produce the concert. The promoter will calculate a percentage of their gross ticket sales - the percentage amount as determined by the laws of the country in which the performance takes place - as a “show cost”, or an expense necessary to produce the concert, no different than the cost of the stage, the lights, the catering, and so on. The promoter will then remit that percentage of sales to the local PRO representative. The takeaway here is that it does not cost the performer of the song anything to perform a cover live in front of an audience. In this case, Morgan Wallen himself isn’t paying Jason Isbell to perform a cover of his song - that cost is borne by the person who is paying for everything else that night associated with putting on the concert and who stands to earn the greatest reward: the promoter. It’s considered a cost of doing business, and a great one too - it means that the songwriters share in a portion of the sales generated by the public’s interest in paying to see the songs they wrote being performed live.
THE PERFORMING ARTIST:
Each night, the performing artist decides on the list of songs they and their band will perform and the order in which they’ll play them - the setlist. Some of these songs may be original songs written by members of that band, and some may be covers written by other songwriters. It is the responsibility of the artist and their teams to send in a copy of the setlist they play each night to the PRO that they are a member of. This lets the PRO know which songwriters they should be sending money to from that which they collected on the show night from the promoter. This is a critical step in proper live performance royalty distribution. Without a setlist, the PROs don’t know who to send money to that they’ve collected from the promoter and that money sits in a “black box” of money purgatory just waiting to be found by it’s rightful owner. Performing artists should do their songwriting peers the enormously impactful solid of ensuring cover songs are included on the setlist submission to make sure the Mailbox Money is properly paid out to the songwriter.
It’s important to note that the first PRO was established almost 170 years ago in France followed by Italy in 1882, and the “modern” PRO has existed for well over 100 years with the founding of the first American society - ASCAP - in 1914 by some of the day’s musical giants like Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa. As such, the methods for which PROs receive setlists, collect money, and pay out royalties have struggled to adapt and keep up with new eras of modernization and technology. At one point in the not so distant past, PROs might have required bands to send, by fax, long form documents with the details of the show that took place and even sometimes asked for newspaper clippings or ticket stubs to be mailed in for additional proof. Bands on the road in vans don’t and won’t do that. Extrapolate that to a global network of individual societies trying to efficiently exchange information and money with travelling musicians and each other, and it becomes a nightmare of chasing paperwork and shoe-horning outdated tech solutions with varying results.
But the biggest question in this whole equation is of the needle in the haystack variety: how is a songwriter supposed to know when another artist or band - who they may never have heard of - has played a cover of their song at a live show? Potentially in a country they don’t live in. At a venue they’ve never heard of. There have been some tech tools over the years that have scratched the surface of helping to answer this question but most are siloed to one particular aspect of the interwoven web of royalty collection and distribution from live performances. Without complementary tools, these haven’t been very effective on their own.
Here comes the unabashed plug: Muzooka brings all of those players together within one nucleus. Using Muzooka, an artist and their management team can submit their setlists directly to their PRO with a click of a button; Muzooka uses data to eliminate as much work as possible for a busy artist management team. With Muzooka, PROs receive setlists and concert information backed by validated ticketing data, and can track precise songwriter ID numbers to facilitate easy accounting, outlining which songwriters are owed what and from whom, at scale, across international borders. And finally, when the pandemic is over and concerts are a real thing again, promoters will have the ability to report their gross ticket sales on Muzooka to their local PRO, and calculate the percentages they owe to be remitted to the PRO and distributed to the songwriter.
Since Covid-19, Muzooka has also created a tool for publishers to use that allows them to retroactively collect owed royalties that may have gone unreported, thereby creating a potential revenue source for songwriters and publishers during the pandemic.
The feedback has overwhelmingly been that Muzooka is a tech solution that the live side of the music industry has been waiting decades for to solve the persistent problem of fragmented and incomplete information as it pertains to the proper distribution of live performance royalties. As someone who has been on the promoter side of the table and has diligently ensured the royalty money owed gets out the door and into the hands of the PRO, it’s a good feeling to know that Muzooka’s technology is facilitating smooth movement of that cash to the songwriter, where it belongs.
Amongst the smattering of reactionary comments from the Isbell army, this one stood out to me as a positive take and a good way to conclude:
Popular covers allow a songwriter’s music to reach an audience they might not have otherwise; dare I say there’s a good size crowd of 18-24 year olds out there who only know the name Jason Isbell because of Morgan Wallen. It makes me nostalgic for that wonderful feeling the first time I listened to Southeastern and just knew it was something special. That others should have that first discovery, if even a little late in the game, is definitely better than not. But if the Isbell family can collect a check by virtue of Morgan Wallen spreading the good word of Jason Isbell’s great songwriting, then everyone really does come out ahead.