Since the start of the year, CMU has been sitting down with key people from across the music industry to discuss their work, key trends and challenges, and what to expect in the year ahead. Today, Sarah Williams, CEO of IMPEL, an international collective of independent music publishers which, together, license their mechanical rights to a wide range of digital service providers. Originally an initiative of UK mechanical rights society MCPS, IMPEL became a standalone organisation in 2018. 

What were big wins for IMPEL in 2023?

2023 was a really strong year for IMPEL. There was a palpable sense that we had reached a tipping point where it had become clear that we had proved the bold premise of autonomy and control on which we were founded. 

When we moved to full independence in 2018, I think there were some in the publishing industry who were attracted to the idea that independent music publishers could claim for themselves the advantages enjoyed by the majors in the world of digital licensing but weren’t sure whether we could really punch at the weight of the competition. 

However, we’ve grown from strength to strength in terms of membership, distributions and services, and this has translated into confidence and credibility for the organisation and its ethos. 

I’d have to say that increasing distributions by 35% from 2022 to 2023 is an undeniably big win for our membership, but there are also other ways we can measure our success. 

At the end of 2022, we had 47 members from eleven countries. By the end of 2023, we had 60 members from fourteen countries. That’s increasing our reach and offering considerably. 

But just as important is that the reason a lot of new publishers join is because they have heard good things about us from our existing members. We know that it’s a big decision for a publisher to entrust to a licensing body such a significant part of their business and we don’t take that lightly.

In short, 2023 highlighted to the publishing sector that we’ve arrived; we’re here to stay and we are helping to shape a positive future for independent publishers.

What else kept you busy in 2023?

In 2022, we took an important decision to create the IMPEL Copyright Hub to aggregate and enrich our members' data, and 2023 has been the year of implementation. 

We knew that we couldn’t scale up our membership and expand the reach of our licensing activities without having the visibility and control that this would bring but it was still a leap of faith for us to select the right partner and bring it to fruition. 

After a ‘request for proposal’ process, we chose to work with Blokur who have been great. Fast, reliable and responsive, they’ve really listened to our business needs. We’ve also had excellent support from our members and partners, particularly SACEM, and much of 2023 has been spent getting to the point where this important foundation stone for our growth is about to start proving its worth.

In the beginning, a project like this does involve asking our members and partners to do extra work to deliver data and integrate systems. For teams who are already busy, this can be a big ask. So, they have to trust us and have confidence in our claim that it will deliver benefits in the long-term. 

Thankfully, the real USP of IMPEL is the relationship with and between our members, and I truly believe that the commitment they have made to the project demonstrates that they see IMPEL not just as an effective licensing body but as their own collective business. I think that’s a big part of what makes us special. There’s an underpinning ethos that drives us forward as a team.

What are the biggest challenges for you and your members? 

There are different challenges for an organisation like ours. For example, as we grow, we bring more and more publishers into the IMPEL family and so the membership becomes increasingly diverse. 

Ensuring that we are moving forward as one organisation while satisfying the needs of different types of publishing businesses requires a lot of communication to ensure that we are all focused on the same big picture goals. We are building in flexibility as we add a la carte licensing options to our offering but handling an increasing number of mandates is something we are always having to work on. 

However, it is in the DNA of IMPEL to think like a publisher so that we can keep adding value to our members’ businesses and be a strategic asset for them. Therefore, as long as we are delivering on our core mission to deliver the best and most comprehensive digital licensing framework to independent music publishers around the world, I think we can navigate this challenge.

Another challenge is cost effectiveness. We want to keep commissions as low as possible for our members but we also want to deliver advantages that they can’t get elsewhere. We walk this line by staying lean and mean in our own infrastructure but working hand in glove with amazing partners. This has proved to be a very successful strategy, which more than compensates. 

Our relationship with SACEM is a great example of how effective this can be. Over the last five years, we have developed great communication and teamwork. This has shaped our processes, reporting and tools so that now our members receive more data and business information than most other people in the business. It’s not just a commercial interaction but an evolving commitment from both sides to keep improving for the benefit of publishers and songwriters.

What will be key priorities in the year ahead?

To expand our licensing footprint, deliver more royalties to members, and to become increasingly assertive and influential in shaping this digital business.

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