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.

An Honest Song


Editor’s note from American Songwriter’s November/December 2017 issue

The music world was still reeling from the events in Las Vegas when news came across the transom that Tom Petty had died.

It seemed like the universe’s idea of sick joke.

Petty’s death sent shock waves across the music world and his legions of fans. And it came when we were still trying to process news of the worst mass shooting in modern American history, a mind-numbing act that left 59 dead and nearly 550 wounded. The shooting occurred at a country music festival, so, naturally, for the people of Nashville, it hit close to home. There was something so chilling about the affair that no one mentioned the news in our office the day it happened. Such are the times we live in.

And then later that afternoon, I heard an intern say, “Oh man, we lost Tom Petty.” Reports of his death were initially erroneous, as Petty did not actually die until later that night, after suffering cardiac arrest earlier that morning. But we knew the score when the news broke.

What made Petty’s death so shocking was the fact that he’d just completed a mega-successful tour, a 53-show run that celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Heartbreakers’ debut album. We had caught the show in Nashville at Bridgestone Arena, back in April, and Petty and his band were very much in fine form. The energy level was high and he delivered a set that was heavy on the hits, with the audience seemingly singing along to every word. In the frenzy of that moment, it was hard to fathom a world without Petty’s songs in it.

This issue closes with a remembrance of Petty by Paul Zollo, who collaborated with the late songwriter on a book called Conversations With Tom Petty, originally published in 2005. Petty was always suspicious of journalists and kept his cards close to his chest, but with Zollo he was, quite literally, an open book. The Gainesville, Florida native knew he had a gift, but he was also a consummate craftsman, as he revealed to Zollo, working and reworking songs until they were just right. For Petty, songwriting was a calling. Like so many of our great artists, he had no choice but to follow the muse.

And he never lost sight of what makes people fall in love with rock and roll in the first place.

“The secret, really,” he said, “the most important thing, is: Have a good time. Don’t take it too seriously. You’ve got to take it seriously enough that it happens. But don’t let anything throw you … and if you keep it on that level, and be sure you’re enjoying it, then that will carry and they’ll enjoy it … So I always try to enjoy it. And the audience sustains me. That is the truth.”

His appreciation of the audience was not lost on those who loved his music. They always knew they were part of the equation. His shows were a party, and everyone was welcome at the table.

Petty hated the idea of trying to appeal to a core “demographic,” a notion he felt was anathema to the spirit of rock and roll. “I get a lot of letters from little children, and I really like that, because little kids don’t lie,” he said.

P.T. Barnum’s proclamation that “there’s a sucker born every minute” may be a golden rule of show business, but Petty stood in steadfast opposition to that idea. His songs were uncommonly honest. And that, I think, is what makes them so great. The notion of authenticity in music and art is a ridiculous one, yet it’s the subject of endless debate in Nashville, especially where country and roots music is concerned. But the point is always moot. Everyone knows an honest song when they hear one.

Margo Price, our cover subject, is no bullshit artist, either. Her debut solo record, 2016’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter, established her as one of Nashville’s young songwriting luminaries. That record was passed up by every Nashville label she sent it to before finding a home at Jack White’s Third Man Records, who embraced it with open arms. It seems plausible to assume the other labels deferred for demographic reasons, because “Hands Of Time,” the album’s centerpiece, is undeniable. An epic cry of the heart, the song chronicles Price’s rough and tumble childhood, the death of her baby years ago, and the slings and arrows that attended the early days of her career. Her new record, All American Made, comes just one year after her debut, and it is even better than its predecessor, which is no small feat.

Finally, we drop in on Bruce Springsteen at one of his residency shows on Broadway. The performance was everything we hoped for, and more, and a reminder of just how nourishing rock and roll can be in the darker hours.

– Caine O’Rear, Editor-in-chief.

Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers Go Heavy On The Hits In Nashville

Four songs into his set Tuesday night at Bridgestone Arena, Tom Petty announced that the band’s next song had not been played live in more than a decade.

And with that, Petty and the Heartbreakers kicked into “You Got Lucky,” an ominous masterpiece of a song that elicited a chorus of “hell yeah”s when the minor chords of Benmont Tench’s synthesizer blasted through the speakers.

It was a testament to Petty’s seemingly bottomless repertoire of hits that he could dust off a song like that willy-nilly and still have it be an anthemic arena sing-a-long.

With the exception of the opening number, “Rockin’ Around (With You)” — the first song on the first Heartbreakers record — and a few other cuts, Tuesday night’s show was heavy on the hits, despite the tour being billed as a celebration of that album’s 40th anniversary.

It was also one of the more raucous and engaged crowds this writer has ever seen at Bridgestone. When Petty played Bonnaroo back in 2013, his set was borderline lethargic, and perhaps that was intentional, given the stoner vibe of the festival. But Tuesday night’s show stood in defiant counterpoint to that. And the crowd, which spanned several generations, responded in kind.

Around the front of the stage, in the not-so-cheap seats, one could find a who’s who of Nashville-based musicians, including Robyn Hitchcock and Wilco’s Pat Sansone. Petty even remarked at one point that if you’re not a guitar player in Nashville, you’re a songwriter. But for the most part, the 66-year-old kept the stage banter to a relative minimum, calling the Nashville crowd “unbelievable” and saying “we can hear every word you’re singing.”

Indeed, it seemed at times that the sold-out crowd knew every word to every song. And it was remarkable to consider just how well these songs have aged through the years. So many of these classic Petty cuts seem to exist in the ether, and the very idea of a world without his music is hard to fathom.

Petty’s voice is raspier than it was in his heyday, but it still gets the job done. And the Heartbreakers, led by guitarist Mike Campbell, who these days resembles a dread-locked Captain Jack Sparrow, never break stride. It’s easy to see why Rick Rubin has long called them the best rock and roll band in the world.

When Petty and the Heartbreakers released their debut back in ’76, some critics dismissed them as a “nostalgic” act. How wrong they were. The final track of that debut album, and the final song of the night, “American Girl,” still crackles with thunder, sounding as fresh and vital as the day it was released.

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