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Show Me The Money

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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.