Growing up, songwriter for Sony Music Publishing Kyle Clark thought if he could score a gold record, “you did it,” he said. He recently achieved that goal as co-writer of Lily Rose’s “Villain,” which achieved RIAA gold status for earning the equivalent of 500,000 units from sales and streams.
But after his celebratory moment, Clark was faced with the reality of working as a songwriter in a streaming-based business model.
“It’s a great achievement, but it doesn’t pay the bills,” he says. “As a songwriter, it’s like, ‘I gotta have another and another.'”
At the annual meeting of the National Music Publishers’ Association in June, the President/CEO of the NMPA Israelite David offered new data that highlighted just how low songwriters are in the pay pecking order. In 2021, 47 different music streaming services generated nearly $9.8 billion in revenue, with more than 96% coming from five companies: Apple, Amazon, Google, Pandora and Spotify. Of this amount, only $1.3 billion (13.4% of the revenue pool) went to songwriters, while record labels earned $5.7 billion (58.6% of the revenue pool). income), which includes the share distributed to artists.
For years, artists who are also songwriters have noticed the disparity between streaming revenue that goes to artists for their recordings and songwriters for their compositions. Singer-songwriter Austin Burke, whose self-released song “Whole Lot in Love” has been streamed over 64 million times on Spotify, witnessed the hardships his colleagues tried to pull off just as a songwriters without access to other sources of income. he had as an artist.
“I’ve seen very close friends working three jobs on top of their publishing deals because they can’t make money,” says Burke, who has a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music as a ‘songwriter. “In the meantime, I was able to buy a house and a car and live my life thanks to the checks I received as an artist. I had the ability to see both sides and I knew something had to change.
To that end, some Nashville artists, including Clark and Burke, are doing what they can to bring about change. Starting with his current single “Take My Life”, Burke pays 15% of his artist royalties on master recordings to the songwriters of his albums. In doing so, he says he has paid these songwriters “thousands” to date.
“I give 5% to my business manager and 10% to my manager and booking agents. I value songwriters over those [services]”, Burke says. “That’s just the number that I was fine with. I don’t expect that number from other people. My goal is to start a conversation.
Jamie Kenney and Emma Lynn White, Burke’s co-writers on “Take My Life,” are grateful. “We create art because we love it,” Kenney says. “But that said, the nature of streaming in recent years has made it much harder for many to do it for a living. So for someone like Austin to make the effort to do this for us is innovative and shows an appreciation for writers who have given a piece of their soul and talents to invest in his art.
White adds: “I’ve been writing songs since I was 15 and going on my 11e year in Nashville. Austin including us in the royalties for “Take My Life” says it all. I hope this paves the way for other artists to do the same with their co-writers.
In addition to his songwriting work, Clark releases his own music as an artist, including “Hope It’s Hot Out,” which debuted at No. 10 on Billboard‘s June Digital Song Sales Chart by Country. And like Burke, Clark has also pledged to donate 15% of his artist royalties from his master recordings to songwriters who contribute to his albums. Meanwhile, Troy Cartwright, a now unsigned artist who previously recorded for Warner Music Nashville, estimates that he donates about 10% of his artist royalties per songwriter, on average.
“Songwriters don’t have the ability to negotiate their compensation for recorded music like you do in sync licensing,” Cartwright says. “As a freelance artist, I was able to do something about it. I want creators to be valued and giving songwriters a piece of the masters seemed like the most obvious way to do that.
Without donating royalties, Universal Music Group Nashville artist Kip Moore and unsigned artist Adam Sanders offered songwriter bonuses on their albums, with Sanders setting aside 10% of net streaming proceeds that he receives for this purpose.
Extending a helping hand was not necessary. Before the rise of downloads and now streaming, songwriters could count on mechanical royalties for every album unit sold, whether or not their song became a radio single. In today’s streaming economy, that’s far from the case.
“When you write with a [self-releasing] artist or even a signed artist, unless the song gets airplay, it’s hard to make a lot of money on it,” Cartwright says. “But I think where it starts to feel a bit unfair is when you have a song that gets millions of streams and you don’t do a lot [of money].”
At the NMPA annual meeting, Israelite explained how much major digital service providers pay songwriters for 1 million streams. Amazon’s paid subscription service paid $2,285, Apple’s paid subscription service paid $1,916, and Spotify’s full subscription service paid $1,160, while the free funded service by Spotify advertising paid $745. Israelite noted that these numbers do not take into account that most songs are written by more than one songwriter, so each writer of a song earning 1 million streams would receive a percentage of that income. (On July 1, the Copyright Royalty Board increased the rate streaming services will pay songwriters and publishers from 10.5% to 15.1%, reaffirming the CRB’s 2018 decision, which had been challenged by critics. DSP.)
Songwriters are further pressured by some artists and managers who demand that they give up a percentage of their song releases in order for a superstar to record them. To combat this, songwriters and their managers have turned to an array of creative options to help make money, including holding fees, and even killing fees if a song isn’t promoted on the radio. Additionally, a group of songwriters, including hitmakers Ross Golan, Justin Tranter, and Emily Warren, launched The Pact in 2021 in a bid to end the practice of giving credit for editing or writing songs to people (including artists and managers) who have not contributed significantly to the composition of a song.
“I really feel for all the young writers to come,” Clark says. “It’s very rare that in the first year a writer signs a publishing deal, they get a radio single. It can take three or four years for a song you’ve written to be cut and played on the radio. At this point, your deal might be over, or maybe they let you go. It’s hard.”
While making the decision to give a percentage of earnings to the writers of his albums is certainly altruistic, Clark also realizes that it can entice established songwriters to contribute to the albums of relatively unknown independent artists.
“If you’re not going to radio, why would these successful songwriters want to be part of the project?” he says. “I know they want to get the Jason Aldean Cup or the Blake Shelton Cup. But at the end of the day, I want them to be excited if I want to try recording one of their songs. I want them to be excited and feel like they’re part of it.
Several of these artists say their dedication to giving back to songwriters on their albums would be a key focus if they signed with a record label. That includes Burke, who recently showcased for several Nashville labels and says he would advocate for a higher royalty rate so he can continue to give songwriters a percentage. “If a label signs me, and it’s a real partnership, they’re going to have to understand my position on that and come up with a deal that makes sense in that spirit,” he says. “I want to make it a standardized thing. I will do this until there is a change.
Clark foresees a day when signed artists or labels will give songwriters percentage points on a record, just as they do to producers (whose points come from the artist’s royalties).
“I think at some point they’ll have to give that percentage to the writers as well, to stay competitive,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen this year, or in five years, but I think at some point, if every independent artist gives some of the master [royalties] for writers, you might see signed artists or labels do this to stay competitive. I could see it going that way.
UPDATE: Best-selling songwriter Jesse Frasure also addressed the issue of songwriter compensation in an Instagram post on July 13, saying, “Helpful hint for our colleagues in the creative community reaching out to songwriters. -songwriters for collaborations…terms like ‘streaming kill it’ or ‘viral TikTok’ translates to almost no financial opportunity for songwriters 98% of the time…try to formulate a plan in advance to offer fees copyright, master points, or other meaningful compensation so that the songwriting community has an incentive to support an artist without an ongoing radio plan. The gap between how artists and labels make money versus songwriters is widening fast. Let’s educate each other about the realities and struggles of each of our own worlds under the umbrella of the music industry.