Twenty-five years ago, I happened to find the complete tablature for Dire Straits’ “Sultans Of Swing” during a late-night session browsing USENET on the university VAX. I printed the whole thing out, for free, because back then my school let VAX users print whatever they wanted for free. Amazing, right? When I think of all the things I printed out at school just because I wasn’t sure if I’d ever find them again. We had no way of knowing that Google would end up buying most of the USENET archives. We had no way of knowing there would be a Google. We still thought that the Internet would end up taking us to the Singularity. What fools we were. Anyway, after printing the tab out I tossed it in a 3-ring binder. Then I forgot about it.
About five years ago, I found that binder, pulled out the tab, and fussed around until I was more or less able to play “Sultans Of Swing”. I was reasonably proud of myself for having done so. It’s a brilliant tune and there are parts where the timing is more than a little tricky. I never shared this accomplishment with anyone, so I’m not sure why YouTube thought I’d want to see the above video. Maybe the almighty algorithm knows me better than I know myself.
There are two talented musicians at work in this song, and it’s a pleasure to watch, but what impresses me the most is how well it’s been monetized. After the jump, I’ll explain all the ways that this “Sultans Of Swing” cover is making cash. Less clear than the how, unfortunately, is the who. Who’s actually getting paid? It’s not as simple as you might think.
Let’s start with the obvious part: YouTube is paying Leo Moracchioli for this monetized video. It’s been watched almost 3.2 million times; this could be worth anything from two grand to $22,000. Apparently, if you have a “high-quality audience” who watches your videos all the way to the end and doesn’t skip the ads, you can make $7,000 for every million views. Is there anybody who has that kind of audience? I’m not sure. I’ve heard that the automotive YouTubers usually make $800 or so for every million views. That’s still pretty good money for just standing in front of a car and being a clown. I’m inclined to think that Moracchioli has a “higher-quality” viewer base than your average “car guy”. I could be wrong.
The problem is that he might not get all that money. Once YouTube realizes that you’re doing a cover song, they have the option to divert some or all of the cash to the original rights holder. If you’ve ever heard the story about how the Rolling Stones made millions of dollars for music they didn’t actually write, or how Fatboy Slim had to give away 100% of the royalties for his most popular song, then you know how difficult it can be to obtain a fair deal for licensing fees on a cover song.
Morrachioli also has a Patreon page where he earns about $5,200 for each video he releases, minus Patreon’s five-percent vig on the take. From what I can tell, he averages between two and three videos a month, which makes sense because they are vastly more difficult to create than, say, a Smoking Tire “One Take”. Morrachioli does all the arrangements, plays all the parts, learns all the solos, mixes the tracks, and creates the videos shot-by-shot. There are people who work even harder than he does and possess even more talent…
…but they are rare. And all Giulio Carmassi has been able to do is catch a couple of gigs with Pat Metheny (props) and Emily Rossum (heyyy-o). He’s not making five grand or more for each video.
If you became a patron of Morrachioli, he will also give you a download of every song he’s covered. This should require what’s called a “mechanical” license, which is 9.1 cents per download. I doubt he’s paying it, because
a) the publishers can’t track what he’s allowing people to download from his private site
b) they probably don’t know it’s happening.
If they ever find out, though, and if they can compel him to produce his server logs, he might be in big trouble. Then again, he might not be. He’s not in the United States and our laws don’t necessarily apply to him. The worst that could happen would be that he would be banned from the services he’s using now, which would kill his income stream but which would not punish him retroactively for past, er, misdeeds against corporate rock.
It’s also possible to buy Leo’s music on iTunes for 99 cents a song. At least 9.1 cents of that goes to the publisher and some of it also goes to Apple. He’s likely clearing about $0.70 per purchase. I have no idea how many songs he’s sold.
Depending on how YouTube is treating him, how iTunes is treating him, and how closely the major publishers like ASCAP and BMI are tracking him, this “Sultans Of Swing” video could have made him anywhere from five grand to thirty grand or more. That’s not rockstar money, but it’s not Starbucks money either. And it’s a sharp riposte to the people who complain that the digital age has made it impossible for musicians to earn money. They’re only half right. It’s no longer possible to make a lifetime’s worth of income on a single tossed-off composition and performance, the way that many people did in the pre-Internet era. But if you are willing to work hard, build an audience, and do what it takes to preserve that audience, you can make six figures or more just performing other people’s music.
Ah, but there’s a little catch. The songwriters and performers of years gone by had a solid system in place to collect, and distribute, their earnings. Jimmy Page could give away his entire fortune today and he’d be a millionaire again by the end of the year, just from sitting in his house. The same is true for many other musicians. Their rights, and their future earnings, are very difficult to steal or even challenge.
For the modern players like Leo Morrachioli, unfortunately, their earnings are subject to the whims of coastal elites. His YouTube channel could be “demonetized” tomorrow without so much as a by-your-leave. (Remember that YouTube shooting that was memory-holed once the gender and race of the shooter turned out to be inconvenient? She went on her little rampage because YouTube demonetized her without warning.) iTunes could decide to drop him. Somebody might claim that he was violent towards women, and without a shred of proof he might be dropped from streaming services as a result. He has no power whatsoever. His earnings, and his career, are in the hands of people whom he will never meet and who can “unperson” him with a single mouse click.
Does that sound familiar? It should. That’s the world in which many Black musicians lived until recently. They were forced to sign contracts they couldn’t read and then they were held to the letter of those laws while their publishers got rich on their backs. Often, they were bullied or deceived into giving up the rights to their own music. They could be fired from their own bands and replaced with whomever the studios wanted. In other words, they weren’t treated like human beings. They were property, de facto if not de jure.
Twenty-five years ago, I thought that the Internet would remove the distinctions of class and race between human beings and allow us to understand each other better. It didn’t turn out that way. We are more divided than ever, whipped into a froth by race hucksters like Ta-Nehisi Coates and class-warfare specialists like Bernie “Vacation Home” Sanders. We are less and less willing to hear someone else’s opinion without an immediate, and negative, response. And those of us who create for a living are learning an ugly truth: we’re all on Parchman Farm now, and the foreman is some Tesla-driving dweeb from Burlingame. Better put your back into it, son.