Last Month, Yahoo and Gracenote introduced a new service that allows you to access thousands of song lyrics; we ignored it, mostly because our brains can’t process any more musical minutiae, and also because of this crazy thing called “Google.” Today’s Wall Street Journal examines just how difficult a task it was to get the service going:
[Gracenote CEO Craig Palmer] says it took his company about two years to go from discussions with publishers to “getting critical mass” on its lyrics service. The difference between printing lyrics in CD booklets and making them available digitally, he says, is that “the rights shifted from the labels to the publishers — not a few major labels, but literally dozens to hundreds of publishers that represent literally tens of thousands of entities that own rights” to lyrics.
Licensing was just the beginning, Gracenote says. Few lyrics were available in digital form at all — most music publishers are just taking their first steps into the online world and had only focused on a few niche usages for digital lyrics, such as karaoke feeds. Gracenote says it recruited its own employees to transcribe foreign versions of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” and consulted everything from liner notes and fan sites to figure out the words to the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique,” crammed with references to movies, cartoons, hip-hop and New York City. Eventually, Mr. Palmer says, Gracenote wrote a 30-page stylebook covering everything from capitalization to the difference between choruses and verses and whether or not to transcribe background vocals.
Paul’s Boutique? We know about a dozen or so late-thirtysomething dudes who, given enough Miller High Lifes, can recite that verbatim. Anyway, the Journal story also points out the service’s most annoying feature: You’re not allowed to copy the lyrics.
The music publishers see what Yahoo Music is doing as providing lyrics for reference, and think that should be different from lyrics that are “permanent,” in much the same way streaming audio is temporary and digital downloads are permanent. In their view, you shouldn’t expect to copy a reference lyric any more than you’d expect to save a stream. Publishers aren’t opposed to lyrics that can be copied — Nicholas Firth, chairman and CEO of BMG Music Publishing, says his company “would like to see as many options available for lyric sites as you can conceive of,” provided such sites compensate publishers and artists. But they see copyable lyrics as a different product.
Such distinctions make perfect sense to people contemplating business models in boardrooms, but they’re baffling to consumers — and feel like another music offering fettered with seemingly arbitrary controls. Not everybody visiting Yahoo Music will be looking to subscribe to streams — consumers may be attracted to the site because it’s an excellent reference guide to music. Or they might have found the lyric they’re hunting for through a search engine — though Yahoo is thwarting copying by displaying lyrics as images, which ironically makes it harder for search engines to find those lyrics.
It’s true: We tried to copy the lyrics to the Fray’s “How To Save A Life”–yearbook quotes are due this week, people!!!–and it didn’t work. The publishing companies are no doubt trying to prevent every revenue stream they can at this point, but protecting music lyrics in the Internet era is about as easy to win as the drug war.