Show Me The Money


Editor’s note from the American Songwriter March/April 2018 issue

The number of full-time, professional songwriters working on Music Row has fallen 80 to 90 percent since 2000, according to songwriting trade association NSAI. That number is not scientific and the claim is somewhat controversial, but NSAI stands by it.

Most of the casualties involved non-performing writers with publishing deals who wrote for country radio. They made their income, or “mailbox money” as it’s called in the trade, from mechanical royalties collected on song sales, as well as royalties generated from the public performance of those songs.

The non-performing songwriter could make a living in the ’90s; indeed, they were boom times on Music Row. The success of Garth Brooks catapulted the entire cosmos of country music into another stratosphere. Albums went platinum left and right, and country music began to rival pop in sales figures. In 1992, a Kentuckian named Billy Ray Cyrus, equipped with an achy-breaky heart and a coif that resembled a coonskin cap, was the top seller across all genres. Because the big country artists of the ‘90s merely co-wrote a fraction of their material, a large number of non-performing songwriters collected a generous share of the compositional royalties.

At the end of the decade the music business changed. In 1999 a rough beast called Napster, founded by two teenagers, began slouching toward Bethlehem. It didn’t take long for the illegal, peer-to-peer file sharing service to make its mark. The next year, for the first time in history, the music industry saw a dip in global record sales.

Then, in 2001, iTunes arrived (with the iPod following shortly thereafter), and legal downloads provided songwriters a royalty rate equal to physical sales, though the sum of those royalties remained a shadow of pre-Napster levels. Apple’s new service ushered in the era of the single download, which killed the album as a business model — but at least consumers were paying for music.

Fast-forward 10 years to the advent of streaming. Spotify, an interactive streaming service that started in Sweden, arrived in the U.S. in 2011 and is currently the number-one service here. The new technology has been a godsend for consumers but it’s paid songwriters next to nothing for their creations.

Some in the music community have embraced the new technology. The three major labels — Universal, Warner, Sony — are now seeing substantial revenue increases as a result. But others decry what they consider to be outright theft.

So now, after years of much hand wringing, something’s finally being done about it. In January, the Copyright Royalty Board announced it was raising mechanical rates for songwriters by 44 percent, the largest increase in history. And the Music Modernization Act, which is being touted as the most sweeping copyright reform in a generation, has been introduced on Capitol Hill. The bill’s creation was the result of hard-fought efforts by NSAI, the National Music Publishers Association, and the Digital Media Association (DiMA), which lobbies on behalf of streaming royalties.

The MMA would create a new entity responsible for paying out mechanical royalties for interactive streaming, replacing what is currently a byzantine system. A marketplace rate standard would also be established, and songwriters would be entitled to at least half of all unclaimed digital mechanicals.

As part of the compromise struck with DiMA, the bill protects the streaming companies from most infringement lawsuits. (In early January, Wixen Music Publishing Inc. filed a $1.6 billion suit against Spotify claiming unpaid royalties.)

As always, the devil is in the details, and though the 100-plus-page bill is largely supported by the songwriting community, some argue that it gives way too much to Big Data (especially where safe harbors are concerned).

Bart Herbison, executive director of NSAI and a huge proponent of the bill, is optimistic it will pass. Though he says we’ll never return to the halcyon days of the ‘90s, he thinks the MMA can recover a small fraction of what’s been lost over the last decade. But even if it becomes law, there’s much more to be done, he says. “We’ve still got to attack consent decrees, and we’ve still got to see some kind of agreeable and meaningful payment system from Facebook and YouTube. There are more battlefronts.”

So sign the petitions, write your congressmen, and keep writing songs.

– Caine O’Rear, Editor-in-chief.

R.I.P., Victor Cabas Jr.


Obituary for Victor Cabas that ran in the Daily Progress.

October 28, 1948 — February 28, 2018

Victor Cabas, a Rhetoric instructor at Hampden-Sydney College whose ferocious intelligence, unorthodox style in the classroom, and unparalleled sense of humor impacted scores of students through four decades of teaching, died on February 28 at the University of Virginia Medical Center in Charlottesville, Virginia. He was 69. The cause was heart failure.

He was one of a kind, as anyone who knew him or took his class can attest. For many years, he taught introductory writing at Hampden-Sydney, which he affectionately referred to as “bonehead English,” and could turn even the most hopeless case into a decent writer.

“The saying is, those who can’t do, teach — but it’s a noble profession,” he once said. He took teaching seriously, and could even remember minute biographical details about individual students from decades prior. He was always turned off by any professor who talked down about their students. The many encomiastic reviews on are a testament to the esteem in which he was held, with former students praising him as “the best professor on campus,” and one saying “take every class you can from him.”

He was one of the funniest — and most quotable — people you were likely to ever meet. He peppered his classes with stories from a colorful and peripatetic life, stories that might include tales of misadventure in Guatemala, where he once got “stoned in the Biblical sense” by a horde of rock-wielding Mayans in a case of mistaken identity.

A native of Newport News, Virginia, Cabas spent much of his youth in South Carolina, where he attended high school. The son of a highly decorated Air Force Brigadier General, he was something of a military brat as a kid, living in England and Hawaii for a spell. Most of his adult life was spent in Nelson County, Virginia, on a large tract of land in the mountains in a house he built himself with the help of student labor. He raised cattle on the property and enjoyed life there immensely with his many dogs over the years. He never owned a cell phone and his lifestyle seemed to defy the instant, on-demand culture.

In 1970, he earned a B.A. from the University of Virginia, graduating first in his class. At UVa he encountered Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for the first time. The book made such an impression that it inspired him to become an academic.

Cabas was accepted to the University of Virginia School of Law, but, after sitting in on classes as an undergraduate, decided it was like “reading your car manual over and over again.” So he accepted a scholarship at State University of New York at Buffalo, where he wrote his dissertation on the use of meta-drama in Shakespeare’s plays and earned his doctorate in literature in 1974.

In the mid-70’s he began his academic teaching career in the English department at the University of Virginia. He did not put himself up for tenure and started teaching at Hampden-Sydney shortly thereafter in the Rhetoric department. In addition to writing, he taught Shakespeare, Melville, Faulkner, the Civil War, American Blues Music, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, as well as a host of other subjects.

A talented writer, Cabas was putting the finishing touches on a novel called Postmodern Blues when he died. The book, which mostly takes place in Guatemala and Charlottesville during the ’80s, is a madcap roman à clef that recounts his post-divorce days of bacchanalia and hard-drinking, a vice he gave up not long after that. The book is also a blistering satire of academia, but ultimately, it is a tale about the redemptive power of love.

Cabas was also an accomplished blues guitarist, and a serious devotee of the Delta blues singer Robert Johnson, on whom he taught a class at UVa. He performed live music regularly, playing a weekly gig at Basic Necessities in Nelson County for the last 20 years. In the late ’90s, you could find him busking on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, belting out blues tunes by the likes of Son House, Bukka White, and Henry Thomas.

He was an avid vintage guitar collector, and spent the last weekend of his life at a guitar show in South Carolina. In his last decade he found great joy in the camaraderie of the guitar merchant scene.

For all his many gifts, Cabas will perhaps best be remembered by his friends as a generous man of uncommon integrity who lived life on his own terms. He also had the unique ability to find meaning in a seemingly broken world. When once asked what this life was all about it, he simply replied, “Just enjoy yourself and try to do a little good.”

Cabas is survived by his father, Brigadier General (Retired) Victor Nicholas Cabas, Sr., USAF; stepmother, Norma Cabas; and his dogs, Jake and Mojo. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Hospice of Piedmont, Charlottesville, Virginia, or to the Nelson County SPCA, Lovingston, Virginia.

A memorial service will be held at his home on May 5, 2018, at 3 p.m. For more information on the service, please email Caine O’Rear at Condolences and remembrances can be mailed to Brig. Gen. Victor Nicholas Cabas, Sr. at 31021 Marne Drive, Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275, or e-mailed to Funeral Home Services are being provided by Cremation Society of Virginia —Charlottesville.