A Conversation with Paul Sears

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June 18, 2024

Paul Sears has been a respected music publisher and manager for over 30 years. He began modestly in recording studios and discovered his passion for songwriting and managing crossover club records, creating a distinctive niche in nurturing Italian talents with global ambitions. By the 90s, he had left a significant mark, guiding Whigfield to a 4-week UK chart-topping success with “Saturday Night”. At Off Limits, Paul co-founded a secondary copyright-collecting society in Italy. Later, he also founded Spaceship Management, where he managed artists like DJ Benny Benassi, with whom he won two Grammys, the upcoming multi-platinum duo Merk & Kremont, and produced tracks for international stars such as Madonna and Chris Brown, among others. Paul also provides consultancy services to major music labels and artists through another company he founded – Visionary Sapiens. He has facilitated significant collaborations, including one between Quavo and Sfera Ebbasta, and arranged for Timbaland to produce Tiziano Ferro’s album.

In this conversation, Paul Sears discusses his unexpected journey into the music industry, highlighting his extensive career abroad in Italy. He explains the complexities of music rights and the industry’s challenges with the current rights system, emphasising the need for improvements. Paul acknowledges the philosophical and practical challenges of AI’s impact on the music industry, especially regarding copyright and the authenticity of music creation. Despite these challenges, he remains optimistic about the future, excited by the continuous evolution of music and the business around it. The constant changes and technological advancements in the industry keep him motivated and engaged.

Paul Sears on Managing DJ Benny Benassi, Music Rights, and the Future of AI in Music

Tim Soens: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself, your work, and the areas you’re involved in, particularly for those who aren’t as familiar with the music industry?

Paul Sears: When I was doing my university degree in French and Italian language and literature, I went abroad for a year in Italy. This was in the very early 80s, and I’m still in that year abroad. So, it’s one of the longest year-outs, I think, in the history of British university degrees. I’m still here in Italy, where I initially got involved in dance music and music in general. I built a niche business for myself as an artist manager, a music publisher and a consultant. My oldest client is DJ Benny Benassi, whom I’ve managed for 22 years. I currently run a management and publishing company, Visionary Sapiens, with my partner, Francesco Gaudesi. We also do a lot of consulting work for major labels in Italy, helping them with their international relationships when they want to put international tracks together.

Tim: What pivotal moments or projects have significantly shaped your career?

Paul: It’s an interesting question because I think it would be honest to say that I fell into music management almost by chance. In the early eighties, I was a kind of post-punk, New Wave type of person—a Joy Division kid. But where I was living in Italy, there were a lot of cottage industries making so-called Spaghetti House or Italo dance records. I used to hang out with the producers, help them make tracks, and organise tours for the artists. I wasn’t that into the music itself, but it was fun, the people were great, and I was making good money. At the same time, I was playing in indie bands and later in a blues band, which is where my musical heart was.

The pivotal moment and turning point came when Benny Benassi’s track “Satisfaction,” a house music classic, started doing well in 2002 in France. It was the first country where it took off. Benny approached me and said, “I want you to be my manager.” I famously responded, “You’re just a DJ. You go to clubs, put records on, take the money, and go home. What do you need a manager for?” He explained that it was more complicated than that and introduced me to his world. I didn’t know much about techno or house music; I was focused more on mainstream and commercial dance music but saw an affinity between underground club music in my indie rock background.

As I got into his world, the rest is history. Benny is still touring globally, headlining massive festivals. We’ve produced tracks for major artists like Madonna and Chris Brown. We’ve even won a couple of Grammys. Yet, we still don’t have a signed contract. It’s all done on a handshake. Our relationship is built on transparency, sharing information, plans, and goals. We face problems and hurdles as a team because we trust each other. It’s a very special relationship within a broader working field, which includes other managers, writers, and publishers.

Tim: It’s admirable that you have had such a trusted relationship with someone for so many years, even to this day! 

To return to your various roles and positions throughout your career, tell us a bit about your time at Off Limits. What was your role there?

Paul: Off Limits started as a music production company. They produced disco music, which we started calling club or dance music. Their first big hit was “Saturday Night” by a Danish artist called Whigfield in the early nineties, number one in the UK charts for four weeks. The company was owned and run by Larry Pignagnoli, a good friend of mine. He had various studios and producers and produced many Italian dance songs in the nineties and 2000s.

Larry and I collaborated and set up a collection society for secondary rights or neighbouring rights. He also started signing some artists for management, and I helped with that. Today, Off Limits is mainly a service company. Larry is retired, and his nephew and niece run it. It’s no longer a production company; it manages rights.

Tim: So, for people who might not be as familiar with collecting societies, what do they do? Could you elaborate on the industry’s problems with the current rights system?

Paul: If you have seven days and seven nights, I can run you through all the details; it’s complicated! In the first instance, musical recordings are complex and involve many rights. The entity who licensed the recording for certain uses, the musicians who performed on the recording, the main artist or singer, the writers, and their publishers—all of them have rights. Hip-hop tracks, for example, can have as many as 15 writers and 20 publishers on one track. Each entity has rights for different types of usage, such as radio airplay, streaming, digital downloads, physical sales, synchronisation rights for advertising, soundtracks, etc. Agreements can be extremely complex and may differ in different territories with different terms. Making this process automatic is a huge challenge, but we need it.

To address and manage these rights, the music industry has a broad set of entities that deal with this. Collecting societies license copyrighted works on behalf of the copyright owners. 

A major issue with the licensing and rights system is the status of writers and music publishers in the “streamosphere”—the land of streaming. While it has recently improved due to US legislation, it’s still heavily weighted in favour of the master recording. This disproportion needs to be rectified. Personally,  I have interests on both sides, but objectively, it needs to be more balanced. Performance rights from airplay on FM radio worldwide and how those rights are collected and distributed involve big pipelines with many leaks and holes along the way. There’s room for improvement, and the technology exists to make these improvements, but it would be very disruptive. Collection societies like PRS or SIAE in Italy, GEMA in Germany, and others employ tens of thousands of people. Significantly reducing their staff due to technological advancements would be challenging. With metadata, it wouldn’t be that difficult, in my opinion, to trace who plays what, when, and where the money should go. 

Transferring rights onto the blockchain as non-fungible tokens (NFTs) is an ongoing conversation. It’s an interesting challenge that has engaged me a lot, but there are many hurdles to overcome before everything ends on the blockchain. One philosophical hurdle is that blockchain is regarded as a technology that decentralises a network, ecosystem, or business, whereas rights collection needs further centralisation in many ways. This contradiction is difficult for the music industry to understand. Ideally, there would be one central place where all information is stored, and every time anything is used, it gets registered. Money gets automatically credited where it needs to go. There’s a clash and misunderstanding between decentralisation and centralisation that needs to be addressed.

Another issue with our rights system is that although a substantial amount of revenue is generated by platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, it’s complicated to understand how master rights are accounted for by digital streaming platforms. If you have a track streamed a hundred million times on Spotify, you will earn something between X and Z, but it’s unclear how much exactly. The calculation methods are complex and depend on various factors. It depends on whether the streams are from premium or freemium users, the country, and various other factors and deals. A little more clarity wouldn’t do any harm.

Tim: Speaking about the complex rights landscape, how do you think AI will further complicate this?

Paul: If you look at it relatively, if people enjoy music made by robots, it’s not the end of the world. However, AI used in military or strategic contexts could be catastrophic. AI is the biggest challenge for humanity right now, but at least the upheaval it’s about to cause in the music industry isn’t an existential threat to our species. So, let’s keep it real.

Yuval Noah Harari said that artificial intelligence has cracked mankind’s operating system. This also applies to our specific industry—the music business. It will be a cat-and-mouse game because the question is: How much of my work have you used to train your AI to create new copyrighted songs and music? Will you pay me for it? How will I find out if my work has been used at all?

Music made by artificial intelligence is complicated. For example, AI is being trained on music made by humans, but it’s already being trained on music made by AI itself. It may be too late even if you say AI can’t use your catalogue. From a songwriter’s perspective, not much changes. If you record a song that sounds like a famous track, such as “Yesterday” by The Beatles, and register it as your own, the original publishers will claim copyright infringement. This happens every day with recognisable segments of lyrics, melodies, and chord progressions. Whether a song is created by AI or a human, the same rules apply. If you’ve copied my music, I can claim copyright infringement as if you had played it on your guitar.

For recordings, it’s a bit more complex and harder to reverse-engineer. For instance, if you use my bassline or something similar, technology might identify that it’s a similar recording. However, if the sound has been manipulated, it’s different. Art is art, and anything can be material for new art. A famous Italian artist, Mimmo Rotella, made collages using newspaper clippings. Some people argued he needed to acquire rights from the newspapers, but he claimed it was art because the newspapers were public.

The border between intellectual property and the right to use material is philosophical. If you’re repurposing something, it should be allowed. For example, if I make a sculpture out of dustbins, I don’t think the patent holder for the dustbins should be able to sue me. Copying and selling a musical idea as your own is an infringement. There’s a grey area between repurposing and stealing, but using AI to create music can inspire new ways of making music.

Another aspect to consider is what happens when music separates from the artist. Imagine a brand producing 20 tracks a second using AI with no human artists credited, creating fantastic playlists that go viral on TikTok. This makes people nervous because it challenges the idea that music is a human creative process. People fear being emotionally deceived by machine-made music. The real issue is not that machines are making music but that people can be deeply moved by it. Nick Cave wrote a letter against AI-generated music, arguing it deprives human beings of the emotional labour of the creative process. I agree with him, but what does that mean if people are as moved by an AI-created song as by one made by Nick Cave? It’s similar to how advertising uses beautiful people and images to sell products, even though the images are not real. Our brains process these images as attractive, and AI might similarly affect our music perception.

Tim: To close off on a positive note, what excites you about the current state of the industry?

Paul: What excites me about the music industry is more about the creative process and music in general. The exciting part is the music that hasn’t been written yet will move me and fill me up when I hear it. How many wonderful pieces of music made by people or machines will we hear before we die that hasn’t been created yet? The music archive is ever-expanding; we can store it all digitally without losing it.

Something else that excites me is the challenges technology presents to people like me who make a living from music. The music itself is evident, but organising the business around music is a challenge that constantly stimulates me. Wouldn’t it be boring if we knew exactly what would happen?

Brought to you by the Web3 Music Association (“W3M”) – a non-profit entity with the goal of orchestrating innovation in the music industry. Its mission is to educate music industry professionals, support their digital transformation, and bring them together to collaboratively develop innovative use cases. Created from an extensive three-year collaboration, the association is a lead contributor to the Music Protocol – a dedicated blockchain for intellectual property registration, management and monetisation. To learn more about the Web3 Music Association, click here.


Tim Soens – Web3 Music Association Analyst