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Songwriters Slam Unfair Streaming Payments in Sadly Hilarious New Video — but Will Anything Change?

One of the saddest ironies in the music world is the fact that songwriters are at the very bottom of the streaming economy. While there’s no question that streaming, and Spotify in particular, saved the music business after 15 years of financial freefall, the jury is still out on who exactly was saved. Major music companies are enjoying record profits, as are many superstar artists — but many others further down the income scale, and especially songwriters, have been left behind by the streaming payment model.

To vastly oversimplify the problem: Streaming generates a fraction of the money that physical music products like CDs and vinyl do. A quarter century ago, a songwriter with a credit on a hit album — i.e. an $18 CD — could make a solid living. But when that same credit is reduced literally to micropennies — a single stream on Spotify pays approximately $.035 — that’s a drastic reduction in income.

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Making matters worse, streaming pays approximately 25% in publishing (i.e. for the songwriting) and the remainder to the recording (i.e. the performing artist and label), and most hit songs these days have three to over a dozen songwriters — most of whom must split those micropennies with publishers. So even if a song has millions of streams, what does 25% of $.035, split multiple ways, add up to? (Note: These payments are determined by music companies and the Copyright Royalty Board, not streaming services.)

Yes, it’s an outrageous situation — where is the music industry without songs? — and no, it’s not showing many signs of getting better.

The situation was put into bold, blunt relief in a minute-long video posted on Instagram Wednesday, which uses the “Of course!” format popularized on TikTok and was coordinated by artist-songwriter Bonnie McKee (Katy Perry, Britney Spears) and featuring some of the most successful professional songwriters working today — including J Hart (Cher, Troye Sivan), Tayla Parx (Ariana Grande, Panic at the Disco), Authumn Rowe (who won a Grammy for her work with Jon Batiste), “American Idol” finalist Jax (Weezer, Big Freedia) Lauren Christy (Dua Lipa, Avril Lavigne), Jesse Saint John (Lizzo, Camila Cabello), Michelle Lewis (Cher; head of the Songwriters of North America non-profit), and more.

They lay out the situation with a resigned irony in a series of one-liners — and interspersed with comical comments about the art of songwriting are some very serious issues:

“We’re songwriters — of course you know all the words to the songs we wrote, and you have no idea who we are,” McKee begins.

“We’re songwriters — of course we work for free,” says Jax

“I’m a songwriter — of course I’m a therapist,” says Parx.

“We’re songwriters — of course we don’t get points on the master [recordings],” Jax adds.

“We’re songwriters — of course we’re good at artist development, we’ve been doing it for free our whole careers!,” Rowe says with an ironic laugh.

“We’re songwriters — of course we’re salty about [Universal Music Group’s decision to mute its music on TikTok], because we’re the ones who secretly wrote all those songs,” says Jax.

Amid all the tragicomedy, there’s a lot to unpack. The central points are:

  • the anonymity of the songwriter who isn’t a widely recognized artist, and thus can’t rely on touring or artist royalties for steady income;

  • the fact that many hit songs come out of group songwriting sessions, for which the participants are only paid if the song is recorded and released and generates publishing royalties, whereas producers, managers and executives frequently receive “points on the master” recording, i.e. a percentage of the income from streams and sales;

  • the outsized role that many songwriters play in the creation of a hit song, which can extend from bringing in other collaborators to the therapeutic process of coaxing a personal, emotional lyric out of an artist;

  • finally, Universal Music Group’s ongoing standoff with TikTok over royalties, which has led the company to mute all of its artists’ music on the platform (it is currently limited to UMG artists, but may extend to Universal Music Publishing’s songwriters, a much larger number of songs). While UMG is making the stand in an effort to get higher royalties for its artists and itself, in the meantime that means all writers with credits on songs by UMG artists are currently receiving no royalties and no promotion for those songs on the world’s most influential platform for music. (Variety has published many articles about these issues, particularly in the 2021 article “Inside the Dirty Business of Hit Songwriting.”)

The video does an effective job of summarizing and humanizing the issues — and conveying the longstanding frustration, if not rage, that has been boiling in the songwriting community for many years.

“People always ask me, ‘How do I become a songwriter?’ and I’m like, ‘Don’t! It’s a terrible business!,’” McKee tells Variety. “It’s the dumbest business model in the world: You work for free all the time and gamble and hope that you have a hit, because you don’t get paid unless something gets [recorded and released], so we work on spec every single day.

“I’m one of the lucky ones — I won the lottery a few times [with hit songs],” she continues. “But for most of my peers, especially in this [current] environment — where we get so little money on streams and we don’t have any points on the master — it really feels hopeless for songwriters.”

Rowe adds, “A lot of the time, we are doing so much more than writing a song — we’re doing a lot of the artist development as well, especially with new artists. We’re spending a year, a year and a half, working with an artist who’s never been in the studio — for free. The labels just kind of say, ‘Oh, we’re putting you in sessions,’ but we’re really doing their job of artist development. That needs to be compensated.”

And don’t even get them started on the TikTok-UMG standoff. “That really hurts,” says McKee, who has a solo album called “Hot City” coming in May, “because TikTok is how you get the word out about a new song — and now you’re muting someone’s entire catalog? The labels say TikTok is so important and push their artists to [be active on the platform], and now they can’t?”

It’s a deeply complex situation that Variety will be covering in greater depth in the coming months, but McKee and Rowe speak for many songwriters when they propose two basic initial solutions: Points on master recordings for songwriters with credits on the album — coming out of the label’s share, not the artist’s — and a day rate for songwriting sessions.

“If the artist is getting 18% or whatever of the master, that means the rest of that is going to the label,” McKee says. “Producers get points, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be treated exactly the same as a producer.”

Rowe also has a more modest request: “Small things like a food budgets would be a nice gestures of appreciation,” she adds, before pointing to ways that songwriters can empower themselves: membership in organizations like the Songwriters of North America or Nashville Songwriters Assn. International; Tiffany Red’s 100 Percenters is a more outspoken activist organization.

“[SONA] doesn’t have thousands of members,” Rowe says. “If more people joined it would accomplish a lot, in terms of communication and because membership helps fund SONA to do what they need to do — it’s all run by songwriters. So we need more membership and more engagement. It’s easy to complain,” she concludes, “but it’s harder to get involved and do something about it.”

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