Songwriters in the Streaming Age: The Struggle for Fair Pay

Tim Hare is a composer and Director of Operations at ALIBI Music Library, a leading provider of music and sound effects for license in advertising, trailers, promos, programming, video games and all other forms of multimedia content. He authored this piece for American Songwriter.

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When Steve Bogard got his start with Atlantic Records’ Miami-based Criteria Studios in 1969, the music songwriting landscape was filled with promise. The Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) president, who has written 10 No. 1 Country Songs in the past four decades and chart records in the past six, cites a love for music and desire to help his family financially as motivations behind his early success.

“A songwriter knew that if he worked his ass off, wrote great songs and had good people skills, he could make a decent living,” he recalls.

And, for quite a while, Steve did just that. His success ultimately led him to Nashville, where he lived well, traveled often and wrote with passion. Unfortunately, Napster and piracy were just the tip of an iceberg that threatened to capsize his industry. Streaming, with its absurdly low statutory rates for songwriters, dealt another devastating blow.

Steve remembers seeing ten-page royalty statements that would represent $100,000 in income before streaming. “[Today], 100-page royalty statements might represent $10,000 if you’re lucky and accumulate enough micro-pennies.”

Michelle Lewis shares a similar experience. The award-winning songwriter and Songwriters of North America (SONA) co-founder found initial success when she wrote “A Different Kind of Love Song” for Cher in 2002 among several other hits that allowed her to pursue songwriting as a career for several years. So when she co-wrote a song for British girl group Little Mix that became a worldwide No. 1 single in 2014, streamed millions of times, Michelle was initially elated. She then she gasped when her first YouTube royalty check – a mere $3.78 – stared her back in the face.

For Dave Hause, a singer-songwriter who has worked commercially for 16 years, the shift to streaming has forced him to tour far more, where he says he earns 80 to 90 percent of his income. 

“Most of my energy is geared toward touring and performing, so unless I’m vigilant about how I balance my time, it’s very easy to get caught up in t-shirt designs and tour logistics rather than songwriting and record making,” he explains. “I often joke that we are traveling cotton salesmen who are just loss leaders to get people to come into venues to drink, which – from a strictly cynical and business point of view – is kind of true.”

While none of these songwriters is a household name in the true sense of the word, all of them had been able to live comfortably while pursuing their passion. But like so many others in their profession, they could see the cracks forming as digitalization began to transform entertainment, slashing their fees and killing their royalties. The “content anywhere” movement was a double-edged sword that exploded into a Wild West of new opportunities and yet undercut the foundation for composers and songwriters whose rights were still governed by antiquated decrees. 

With digital streaming services left to their own devices in setting licensing rates, music creators were suddenly earning only a fraction of what they had for the same work, with tracks often requiring millions of downloads just to earn minimum wage. 

By 2015, digitalization had taken hold with a grip of steel, sending an industry scampering to protect the value of all involved in making music as consumer access expanded exponentially. And further complicating matters was the fact that most people associated the public face of this struggle with mega-celebrities, as artists like Beyonce, Taylor Swift and U2 began to speak out for better streaming rates.

“Isn’t she rich enough?” I heard someone mutter after the media spotlighted Swift’s decision to pull her music from Spotify. While the good intent was there, its millionaire messenger seemed to pettifog the issues, exacerbating a perception that composers and songwriters were simply getting screwed by their greed.

In my role directing the operations ALIBI, a production music library that works with music creators all over the world, I can tell you this is hardly the case. Steve, Michelle and Dave – and others like them – represent the vast majority of those negatively impacted by digital streaming platforms. Music creators stand to lose millions in royalties, which will continue to kill off independent artists, labels and songwriters. 

As an industry that continues to rocket full speed into digitalization (streaming services accounted for 80 percent of all music industry revenue by mid-2019, according to RIAA), it is vital that we come together now to ensure that composers and songwriters see their royalties and fees governed to give them fair, living wages. Unlike screenwriters, actors and other creatives, they are not unionized, and their labels, publishers and performance rights organizations (PROs) have operated at the mercy of government regulations dating back to 1941, when player pianos were a thing. 

Fortunately, through the efforts of organizations like SONA and NSAI, they do have some passionate advocates in their corner… advocates that are beginning to make real changes in legislation. Founded in January 2015 to combat the abysmal licensing rates being paid to music creators by streamers like Spotify and Pandora, SONA began by educating composers and songwriters about their rights in the digital landscape. [Watch SONA attorney Dina LaPolt’s inspiring TedX talk.] For many, royalty collection on traditional music licensing had been somewhat of an auto-pilot function, as the rules had been clear-cut, but streaming and downloads were uncharted territory, and the depth of impact was a wake-up call. 

SONA, NSAI and other advocates then worked diligently on passing the Music Modernization Act (MMA), which was created to modernize music copyright issues in the streaming age by improving compensation to songwriters and streamlining how their music is licensed; enabling legacy artists (who recorded music before 1972) to be paid royalties when their music is played on digital radio; and providing a consistent legal process for studio professionals – including record producers and engineers – to receive royalties for their contributions to music that they help to create. 

Signed into law in 2018, the MMA has the potential to help songwriters and composers turn fractions of a penny into dollars, a move that could bring some life-changing relief. Between all of the “fixes” to copyright law that this act provides, it should give songwriters a 30-40 percent raise once it goes into effect, though this isn’t slated to happen until 2021.

Additionally, a subsequent Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) ruling to increase songwriter and publisher rates by 44 percent is now facing appeals by Spotify, Amazon, Google and Pandora. Ironically, these streaming companies actually need music to exist, so refusing to fairly compensate the creators that help them generate millions in revenue is likely to cause major issues as well.

Meanwhile, as the factions in this complicated battle grapple with placing an agreeable value on the creation of streamed music, the art is suffering. When composers are no longer able to make a decent living, the passion, depth and creativity of music pay for it… the red tape all but assuring their exits.

What can be done to prevent what seems an inevitable decline in this once-vibrant profession? Clearly, continued advocacy is critical as this fight is really in its infancy.

I joined SONA in 2017 and have been active in supporting the rights of composers and songwriters through their programs. I encourage others to support such advocacy as well, and be willing to contact local congress members when the cause calls for it, whether you’re a musician, the friend or family member of a musician or none of the above. After all, if you love music, this affects you too.

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