Interview With Serona Elton of The MLC (Mechanical Licensing Collective) About How Songwriters & Publishers Can Collect Their Streaming Royalties

Serona Elton
Serona Elton of The MLC

With music streaming a leading source of income for songwriters & music publishers, The MLC (The Mechanical Licensing Collective) now plays a vital role in making sure that publishers and self-administered songwriters get paid. The MLC collects the digital royalties in the U.S. from interactive music streaming services (such as Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music) and distributes the royalties to publishers & self-administered songwriters.

To learn more about The MLC and the services they provide, we are pleased to interview Serona Elton, who is Head of Educational Partnerships for The MLC. She is a prominent music industry exec & educator, who works with many U.S. universities to educate their music business students on how digital music royalties are collected and distributed by The MLC.

Importantly, Elton explains how publishers and self-administered songwriters can sign up for The MLC, so they can collect their potential royalties. She also explains how The MLC was established (after the passing of the Music Modernization Act in 2018) and what The MLC’s mission is: to ensure that songwriters, composers, lyricists, and music publishers receive their mechanical royalties from streaming and download services in the U.S. accurately and on time.

Elton is known as a top music business educator & professor, who is an ideal person to be an ambassador for The MLC. In addition to her position with The MLC, she is a full-time professor and Chair of the Music Industry Department at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music. Notably, she was named by the Music Business Association (MusicBiz) as its 2023 Music Business Educator of the Year.

Elton started working at The MLC in March 2020, which was soon after The MLC was established. Elton communicates and networks with many universities across the U.S,. and often hosts programs and events that help educators and students learn about everything The MLC does.

Here’s our interview with Serona Elton, The MLC’s Head of Educational Partnerships.

DK: How did you get started with music, and the music business?

Serona Elton: I got interested in music when I was a child growing up in Miami. My father worked in the television and film business, and he had an office in the Criteria Studios building, which is a famous recording studio. I remember being in the lobby of Criteria, which had wall-to-wall platinum records and I thought…Wow, what is this about? (laughs). I started getting to know people in music when I was in junior high school. And then there were a lot of career twists and turns from then on.

Here’s a brief video about The MLC.

DK: Were you also a musician?

Elton: Not really, but I knew I had to be around music. My career had to be connected to music somehow. So, when I was in college, I got involved in music industry-type activities.

DK: You have won an award for being a top music business educator. Can you talk about that?

Elton: Several years back, the Music Business Association (known as MusicBiz), created a suite of awards called the Bizzy Awards. Then in 2023, they introduced a new category, called the Music Business Educator of the Year. And I’m very proud and fortunate to be the recipient of their inaugural award last year.

DK: How did you decide that you wanted to work with The MLC?

Elton: I’ve been involved in mechanical licensing for more than 20 years. I was working at Warner Music Group when the Music Modernization Act was passed. Like everyone who was working in mechanical licensing, I was following that development very closely. Then my very good friend and work colleague at Warner, Kris Ahrend, became the CEO of The MLC. The timing worked out well, because I was also looking to see what the next opportunity might be. I’d always felt a deep connection to mechanical licensing as an activity within the music industry. Kris had envisioned a role to address The MLC’s specific educational needs both in academia and the industry at a large. I had a background in mechanical licensing experience and academic experience, so it was a great fit.

DK: When did you start working with The MLC?

Elton: It was in March 2020; I was part of the first group of team members at The MLC. The Music Modernization Act was signed at the end of 2018, then in 2019, The MLC was established. Kris came on board as the CEO in January 2020, and he started building much of the rest of the team from then on.

DK: You’re the Head of Educational Partnerships at The MLC. What are your main goals in that role for The MLC?

Elton: In this role, I’m particularly focused on working with university professors across the country who teach music industry or songwriting and composing, on creating materials and resources for them to use to help teach students about The MLC, and about the context in which The MLC operates. Creating the materials for educators is my primary function. I also create programs for educators and students to be engaged and involved with The MLC, like through our educator ambassador program and student ambassador program.

My secondary role is creating educational materials for a broader audience, such as our members and others interested in understanding what we do at The MLC. For example, FAQs on The MLC’s website, and the important digital royalties landscape diagram that we use in our webinars, that people have found to be quite helpful.

DK: Can you explain the type of royalties that The MLC collects?

Elton: They are called digital mechanical royalties. Mechanical royalties are a type of royalties in the music industry, that are generated both from the sale of physical products such as CDs and vinyl, and also from interactive streams and downloads. When we say digital mechanicals, we’re talking only about interactive streams and downloads. The MLC collects digital mechanical royalties from digital music services operating in the United States, that are making music (audio only) available for interactive streaming and download. Then we pay that money out to a particular category of rightsholders in the music industry. Specifically, we pay the party that is the publishing administrator of the song.

DK: To clarify, if a songwriter is signed to a big publishing company like Warner Chappell Music, then you would pay Warner Chappell and then they will pay the songwriter. But if the songwriter is an indie artist and they publish their own songs, do they go directly to The MLC?

Elton: That’s right. We would pay the indie artist directly because they’re acting as the publishing administrator. We refer to that songwriter as being self-administered.

DK: The digital service providers (DSPs), such as Spotify and Apple Music, pay The MLC at the agreed-upon current royalty rate. Do the DSPs give this massive amount of data to The MLC, and then The MLC figures out how to distribute this money to the publishers & self-administered songwriters?

Elton: Pretty much. To expand on a couple things, the rates that the DSPs use to calculate what they pay are called the statutory royalty rates, and they are determined by the Copyright Royalty Board. The MLC does not set those rates. They are set by this panel of three judges. Then on a monthly basis, after the end of each month, those digital music services have to compile a whole lot of data that they have to send to us, including data about every specific recording that was streamed and how many times it was streamed. There’s a number of different monetary amounts that they also have to total up that are used in the statutory rate formula, and the formula is used to figure out what the per stream amount of royalties will be for that month on that service.

DK: How do songwriters and publishers sign up with The MLC?

Elton: It’s super easy. You go to our website – The – and in the top right corner there’s a big button that says, “Connect To Collect.” That’s our little catchphrase that means, “Connect with The MLC to Collect your digital mechanical royalties.” You click on that button and answer some questions to get access to our Portal. Then you go through a few more steps to become a Member. It takes a couple days for us to review your information and get you set up,  and it’s free.

Also, for songwriters whose songs are administered by someone else (like a publisher or administrator), we invite and encourage them to look up their songs in our Public Search, which is how we refer to our publicly accessible song database. They can look up their songs and make sure they see them in the database, and that they see their publisher’s or administrator’s name on them with their correct share. That lets them know that the song is set up correctly with us, and that money is flowing from us to their publisher.

DK: In your role as Head of Educational Partnerships, do you create or host specific events or programs?

Elton: When it comes specifically to educational partnership events, yes, we have several types. One type is guest speakers that do information sessions at college campuses. Sometimes it’s in person, and sometimes virtually. Professors can request a guest speaker for a class or for a session that they may want to have. Sometimes the speaker is me, or depending on where it is or the specific date, it might be somebody else from our leadership team.

Last fall, we also did a pilot of a new event that we’re planning to roll out to more schools in the future. It’s called The MLC Student Match-a-Thon. It was a very hands-on workshop where students learned all about music metadata and the challenges that anybody dealing with it has to work through. Also, we sometimes do a career-related workshop, as a collaboration between our Educational Partnerships team and our Human Resources team where we give some tips and tricks for those who are getting ready to start their professional careers as music business professionals.

In addition to these educational partnership events, there’s a much larger set of events that our Outreach and Engagement team works on. At many music-related conferences, we are often giving a workshop or speaking on a panel. At these events, we also often have an information table in an exhibitor area where people can walk up and find out more about us. These events are not focused on students or educators but are instead for our existing and potential members and anyone in the industry who wants to know more about us.

DK: Thank you Serona for doing this interview. Lastly, what tips do you have for creators who are handling the business side of their career?

Elton: My first tip would be to get yourself a physical or digital notebook and start taking notes, because there’s a lot to learn, and there’s no way you’re going to learn everything you need to do in a one-hour session somewhere, and there’s no way you’re going to keep track of all of it in your head. My tip is—get yourself a good way of starting to capture notes and keeping a great to-do list, take the time to learn about all of the different ways that money flows in the music industry, and understand what actions you have to take to collect that money.

There will be some things that you have to do once, like join a PRO, or if you’re a self-administered songwriter, join The MLC. But then there will be some things that you have to do every time you write a song, and that song is going to be used in a sound recording that’s going to be distributed. You need to come up with your own checklist when you write a new song, and it’s too much to carry around in your head (laughs). That would be my tip.

Here’s the link to The MLC’s site:

Dale Kawashima is the Head of SongwriterUniverse and a music journalist. He’s also a music publishing exec who has represented the song catalogs of Michael Jackson, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Motown Records.
Dale Kawashima