Pharrell Williams and Patti Smith Tear Up, Yoko Ono Gets a Credit on ‘Imagine’ at Emotional NMPA Meeting

UPDATED: Apart from impassioned and sadly necessary broadsides about the need for songwriters to receive their fair share of earnings, the National Music Publishers Association’s annual membership meeting is not usually a place where you see deep displays of emotion. Yet at the 2017 edition at New York’s Cipriani on Wednesday, Pharrell Williams tearfully paid homage to an unnamed friend whose memorial service he attended that morning — probably Ruff Ryders producer Jay “Icepick” Jackson, who succumbed to cancer earlier this month — Yoko Ono received a songwriting credit for John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and Patti Smith welled up as she sang the song in tribute.

The event also saw speeches from Sony/ATV chief Martin Bandier and ASCAP president Paul Williams — both of whom were honored at the event — in defense of songwriters.

The meeting began with a tribute to Paul Williams, a Grammy and Oscar-winning songwriter, singer and actor — and an active recovery advocate — whose career enjoyed a late bump with his work on Daft Punk’s 2013 album “Random Access Memories.” After country singer Logan Brill opened the show with a lovely version of Williams’ “Rainbow Connection,” probably the most famous of his many hits, he delivered a characteristic speech combining wit, compassion for songwriters and a comic yet serious look back at his struggles with substance abuse (“You know you’re an alcoholic when you misplace a decade — what happened to the ‘80s?”). He spoke fondly of the publishers who’d helped him along the way — “Publishers have been a major part of my life sometimes with a yes sometimes with a no” — and noted that as his addiction worsened and all other invitations stopped coming, “my publishers were still there for me.”

After a short speech in which Julie Menin, commissioner of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, declared the week “New York Songwriters’ Week,” the tribute to Bandier got underway with a medley of several of his favorite songs from the Sony/ATV catalog by vocal quartet Next Town Down — the group sang pitch-perfect renditions of The Temptations’ “My Girl,” Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off,” All 4 One’s “I Swear” and Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk.”

Legendary Motown singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson, co-writer of “My Girl,” gave Bandier’s induction speech, which was generally a career recap but he spoke of first meeting his friend during the period he was signed to Bandier’s SBK company.  “We became instant friends — he’s my golf rival!” He concluded by saying, “Marty, I love you like a brother and I’m very proud that I could be here tonight. Keep keeping on!”

Smokey Robinson (left) with Sony/ATV chairman/CEO Martin Bandier. (Photo: Gary Gershoff for NMPA)

Bandier, 75, began his speech with a joke — “I was reluctant at first to accept this honor because when you hear about them the first thing you think is, ‘This guy’s gonna be playing a lot of golf soon,” which got a big laugh from the room — “but at this time we need more voices than ever to speak up for songwriters.”

“The fruits of our labor are not being equitably rewarded and we are not benefitting from the streaming revolution as meaningfully as we should,” he said. “I’ve always believed that songwriters are not getting proper recognition. This is even more prevalent today on the leading music streaming services. Far too often the songwriter’s contribution is overlooked or even forgotten. I have no doubt that this lack of public recognition has played a major part in why songwriters are not treated on an equal basis as the recording artist.”

“When I look today at the likes of Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, I ask: where are the names of the songwriters?,” he continued, echoing comments he made in a talk at Syracuse University last month.” They are either not there or so hidden that you would have to be a special prosecutor, or perhaps The Washington Post – to find them. It is as if the songwriters do not exist and the only people who matter are the recording artists. However, without the songwriters coming up with the words and music in the first place, there would be nothing for the artist to record and no music to stream.”

“So I call upon all music streaming services and others to prominently show the names of the songwriters who wrote the songs just as they clearly credit the artists who recorded them. It’s a tiny step but a hugely symbolic one that will once again put the role of the songwriter front and center and remind everyone of the songwriter’s vital contribution to music and the industry. And, ultimately, it will play a part in ensuring that these will become the best of times for everybody, including the songwriters and music publishers.”

A brief speech from Rep. Marsha Blackburn — a longtime advocate of creators’ rights — was followed by a keynote from Amazon head of music Steve Boom that largely amounted to a half-hour product presentation for its voice-powered Alexa service and Echo speaker. Amid a vivid power-point presentation loaded with giant numbers — he showed a chart projecting that worldwide streaming revenue will soar from $3.3 billion in 2014 to $18.4 billion in 2022 — the appeal to songwriters was not always obvious. Yet in making his case that Amazon is reaching for the less-dedicated music fans who are not likely to pay $10 per month for services like Spotify and Apple Music, the point for the room is that those consumers will bring more money into the music industry and thus to creators. He also showed off some Alexa tricks by asking the device to play the top songs by Smokey Robinson, and asked it who wrote Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” and it obliged.

However, NMPA CEO David Israelite was quite enthusiastic about the service in his speech, where in he laid out many statistics. “The state of the industry is actually really great,” he said, with  2016 U.S. revenue at $2.652 billion in its second year of growth after many years of decline, and he predicted growth in next year and strong years coming up. He cited an RIAA report noting that streaming accounted for 51 percent of that revenue, downloads for 24 percent, physical for 22 percent and synch for 3 percent — and noted that 74 percent of streaming’s income was from paid subscription services. He also voiced the opinions of many in the publishing community by saying “it’s time to get rid of compulsory licenses” and the “consent decrees should go away,” noting that the former dates from the World War I era and the latter from World War II, and that neither have a place in the digital age.

He also called on publishers to identify publicly not only the works they own but also the shares they own — information that is often kept private — comparing the effort to the movie industry’s initiative to police itself with a rating system. This would be “fixing our own problem with regard to licensing these songs,” he said. “”It may not be our responsibility to fix it when a label or streaming services posts an unlicensed song, but we have to work to fix it. I’m aware that there are publishers in this room who don’t want to hear or do this, but I guarantee you that this is the key.”

After that talk, things took a turn. Pharrell Williams, who was being honored with the Centennial Songwriter accolade, took the stage wearing olive shorts, a white shirt and white jacket. His tone was reserved and a little dazed.

Pharrell Williams (right) with NMPA CEO David Israelite. (Photo: Gary Gershoff for NMPA)

“These days things have been a bit surreal, and this is one of those moments,” he said. “I walked into the green room, and Smokey Robinson is on the couch, Patti Smith is there with her daughter,” he shook his head at the company he was keeping. “And then the Amazon presentation — it was nice but it felt weird being in Prime!” he said, noting the “Get Lucky” segment.

“Any door that has been opened for me has been because of songwriting,” he said. “Music has been the skeleton key that’s opened every door for me.”

He then said he was deviating from his prepared speech. “We had a celebration today for one of my buddies who just passed,” he said, presumably referring to Jackson. “And let me just tell you, if you love somebody, friend, family or whatever, and a doctor tells you something, you don’t not talk about it. You’ve gotta talk about it so you can get some support from your friends and family. And if you see somebody around you that’s ailing, you’ve gotta do something about it. I know this isn’t what you guys are asking for, but these are things that haunt us until we talk about it.

“I would not be up here right now if it weren’t for songwriting,” he continued. “If it weren’t for songwriting we would not have these experiences or meet these legends. Songs that are for making babies, songs for when someone is passing. Where would we be as a species if we didn’t have great songwriting? That’s why what Marty was saying is so important: the performers are awesome but what would there be for them to perform if not for the songwriters?”

He then thanked Bandier — “You’ve been here from the very beginning and you’ve been unwavering in your support” — and the Sony/ATV family, singling out Brian Monaco, Rick Krim and Danny Strick, along with two former company execs who’ve gone on to run other major publishing companies. Warner/Chappell CEO Jon Platt — “who’s never left my side, ever, wedding, funeral, whatever, you were always there, big bro, and even when I would go off and make stupid deals that you warned me about, and you were right, you’d be like, ‘Okay, we’ll fix that’” — and Universal Music Publishing CEO Jody Gerson, “who did some amazing work for me and helped me out in a major way.” He also thanks Global Music Rights chiefs Irving Azoff and Randy Grimmett, his manager Ron Laffitte and Caron Veasey, and his family.

After a collective exhale from the audience, Israelite brought on the “surprise” he’d promised earlier in the day. He showed a video from 1980 wherein John said that Yoko deserved a songwriting credit for “Imagine” because of her influence and inspiration on it — and Israelite announced that in accordance with Lennon’s wish, Yoko will be added to the song as a co-writer.

Yoko took the stage to accept her award in a wheelchair, pushed by Sean. While her words were partially obscured both by her accent and the echo from room’s high ceilings, she spoke briefly about how her illness — she is suffering from an unclear flu-like ailment — has made her appreciate the song and other elements of life more fully, and said “This is the best time of my life,” to applause. She continued, “And I am so surprised that Sean created his own vision —” But then Sean, whose long hair, beard, fedora and dark suit made him look startlingly like his father circa 1969, gently took the microphone and said, charmingly, “Let’s not talk about me!,” to laughter. He spoke briefly about the importance of music education in schools, and how much his father learned at art college. “So let’s not let any generation be denied the opportunity of letting those parts of their imaginations [thrive].”

An emotional Patti Smith, accompanied on piano by her daughter Jessie, reflected on Pharrell Williams talk and said that she and her daughter were equally awed to meet him in the green room earlier in the day. She then spoke emotionally about “Imagine” — “I can’t imagine a world without ‘Imagine’” — and then performed the song, mixing up the lyrics a little and pausing at times to compose herself.

Patti Smith singing “Imagine” at the NMPA annual meeting. (Photo: Gary Gershoff for NMPA)

Cornered by Variety after the event, Israelite confirmed that the process to add Yoko’s credit, while not yet confirmed, is already under way, but he said that the NMPA and Downtown Music Publishing, which administers both Ono’s and Lennon’s solo compositions, are optimistic that it will be confirmed. While Israelite initially said that adding Ono to the credits would extend the period of time before the song enters the public domain, he later corrected himself and noted that because the song was published in 1971, the life of its copyright lasts 95 years after publication — not the current law, which says 70 years after the death of the last author. Adding Ono as a writer will not extend the life of its copyright.

Because Ono is a beneficiary of Lennon’s estate, the move is not as complicated financially as it might have been were she not. However, virtually everything involving The Beatles and the vast fortune they generated has many ramifications, so more legal maneuvering is likely in the months and years to come.

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