The Battle For Sustainable Streaming Royalties: Notes From The Front Lines

Okay, technically the front line is behind a laptop screen. But the battle itself is not a virtual one. It’s one that is playing out in real time on our royalty statements. Have you noticed it? (sarcasm) Two years ago, my fellow professional songwriter friends and I started feeling the “gaslight effect” — we were working harder than ever, seeing more uses of our songs in more places, and yet, their corresponding royalty statement amounts were decreasing.  Hmmm. 

The steady awakening to reality — that the work-increase/royalty-decline wasn’t just in our heads, but was happening for a reason — motivated some songwriters and composers in Los Angeles (myself included) to start SONA (Songwriters of North America). Other music creator organizations already exist; wonderful, well-established community hubs and advocacy groups like the NSAI, CMC, SGA, SCL, etc. But my friends and I felt like the immediacy of the problems we faced demanded more from us. We wanted answers, action and results.

First, we asked questions. Most importantly, why are songwriters and publishers forced to split the smallest piece of the streaming royalty pie? Why do we get somewhere between 1/8th and 1/12th of what the owners of the sound recordings get from streaming services? How did it get away from us to this extent? Our questions led us to answers that lay in Washington D.C. and Silicon Valley. 

To get to those answers, we needed some force, some strength in numbers. So we grew our circle from about 15 to well-over 200 songwriters and composers in our first year. We hosted town hall-style meetings, salons and panels for our community (always with snacks!).  We wrote op-eds and circulated petitions, created social media campaigns (#GetTheRateRight) and educational videos (“Gently Down the Stream”). We met and aligned with our fellow creator-based organizations around the country and the world. Oh, and we sued the Department of Justice over their bogus 100 percent licensing ruling in August of 2016. Yep, that was us. 

We worked hard and busted ourselves into conversations (and courtrooms). And the takeaway from all those conversations is still this: songwriters and composers — specifically, the people who create the music, before it gets recorded and/or performed — are the most vulnerable and the least compensated in the new streaming economy. To be clear, the writers are getting crushed. And the only way to save the job of music creator, is to #GetTheRateRight!

“Getting the rate right” is the simple, desired outcome to complex sets of problems, which I’ll gather in three subsets, ordered from the most fixable to the least:

Metadata: One of the complaints that technology companies level at the creative community is that our metadata sucks. There are thousands of registered copyrights with multiple titles, conflicting co-writer/publisher information and split percentages that add up to more than 100 percent. So, fair enough. Fixing that will help us too.

Piracy: Also known as “the top of the waterfall.” Imagine all of the copyrighted work available for consumption online as a giant body of water collecting at the top of a waterfall. Despite all the work that the entertainment industry has done to encourage and enforce legal usage of intellectual property, the sad truth is that illegal use still way out-scales legal use. So, imagine the “waterfall” as a skinny trickle of legally-paid-for online entertainment. The puddle at the bottom of that trickle is the collected pool of scraps (money) that the copyright creators, owners and middlemen are all fighting over.

Sound recording/copyright equity: Here down at the bottom of the waterfall, there is another big problem. While streaming companies have been great for remonetizing music as a whole, the deals that they made at the outset were, while legal, extremely unfair to music creators.

Regarding data, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Bob Goodlatte, just released his first policy proposal regarding copyright for review. The bill proposes to take the Copyright Office out of the Library of Congress and for the Copyright Office “to maintain an up-to-date digital, searchable database of all copyrighted works and associated copyright ownership information.” While this is a positive step, a challenge will be to make sure creators are included in the process.

Regarding pirated music (the “top of the waterfall” stuff), there needs to be a serious updating of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  Its “safe harbor” clause needs to be eliminated and a new system of detection and enforcement needs to be implemented. Most players in the music industry have been organizing around and lobbying for these changes.

And on the subject of renegotiating the songwriters’ deals with streaming companies and record labels, well, that involves prying money out of their hands, and that’s really hard. We at SONA are making the case, publicly, that the result of the record labels’ money grab is that the songwriters are getting crushed. It’s not hyperbole to say that we won’t survive the transition period between now and some future point when everyone is listening to music via streaming. As it is, songwriters with cuts and even hits are driving for Uber and trying to find alternative sources of income just to live to see another day in the studio. The injustice here is that the rest of the music industry is thriving on the backs of these songs.

We must #GetTheRateRight. Seriously. And that means a seat at the negotiating table, because, as we say at SONA meetings, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” And for the last several years, the songwriters have been lunch.

Michelle Lewis, a Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, is one of the founding members of Songwriters Of North America (SONA).