Streaming has rejuvenated the music industry, but it’s no secret that the new business model has upended many in the industry. And no group has been more frustrated than the songwriters.
In a physical, sales-driven world, writers could make a decent living by landing a placement on a superstar’s album, whether it ended up being a hit or not – every song on a million-selling album wins. the same amount of mechanical royalties, most recently 9.1 cents per copy sold. In the world of streaming, however, album placements no longer guarantee much revenue. There are only hits and non-hits, and the money a writer makes writing a few of these, even if a superstar records them, “might not even equal the cost of filling my gas tank to come to the session,” said Dan Petelwhose management company This Is Noise looks after Ian Kirkpatrick (a writer on Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” and “New Rules,” as well as hits by Selena Gomez and Jason Derulo), Simon Wilcox (Demi Lovato, Camila Cabello) and others.
“The truth is that the vast majority of songwriters write for free five days a week with a very low batting average [in terms of getting songs placed],” said Zach Gurka. His Ground Up MGMT list includes Emily Warren (Lipa, Charli XCX) and Scott Harris (Cabello, Shawn Mendes), and Gurka’s work — “to get your average writer to earn a living wage by the end of the year” — “ involves a scavenger hunting for money in different locations.
In an effort to counter this difficult economy where artists and labels make the majority of the money paid out by digital streaming platforms, Petel, Gurka and their peers are shaking up music industry norms by devising new ways of doing things. pay their customers. Instead of begging for royalties, songwriter managers are increasingly asking for payments throughout the writing and recording process: fees that can include upfront money to get into the studio with an artist ; detention costs to reserve tracks for a fixed period; a kill fee if, say, a label doesn’t push a single to radio; and, in some cases, a percentage of royalties generated from the recording, which songwriters have traditionally not received.
Collectively, these fees can range from a few hundred dollars to the high five figures for in-demand writers.
Every request can be a risk – push someone too aggressively and potential clients might opt for a less demanding songwriter. “It’s so easy to sour relationships by asking too much,” says Kelle Musgrave Glanzberghwhose linear management roster includes more than a dozen writers, producers and mixers.
Songwriters have historically drawn from several sources of revenue: mechanical royalties from downloads, physical sales and, to a lesser extent, streams; performance royalties, which arise from radio playback and streaming; and costs for synchronizing placements in commercials, TV shows, or movies. Writers today can no longer rely on mechanical royalties from physical sales and downloads to generate much revenue. Labels are generally not open to contributions from songwriters when it comes to promotion or sync placement. And the number of writers and producers on many pop songs further dilutes everyone’s income.
For Gurka, asking for a retainer fee “is the first point to ask for something.” Artist managers or A&R executives often hear demos and want to book them for a future project, at which point, he explains, “There’s an opportunity to say, ‘We’re not presenting. this to others for three to six months while you figure out what you want to do. But in exchange, can we have some kind of royalty for this period? “He says retainer fee requests often range from $5,000 to $20,000.
More and more songwriter managers are also asking for royalties on songs intended for release. While writers like to release revenue when their lyrics or melodies are used, they are generally not entitled to a share of the released recording’s revenue stream unless pieces of their demo – guitar pieces, for example. example – are used in this recording. Petel says he will often demand 1% of recording royalties for his clients in situations where an artist wants a song but has not been involved in writing it.
The same goes for situations where a writer plays an important role in an album project, setting aside multiple days to help create songs and putting multiple tracks on the disc. “There’s not a lot of money in album cuts unless you can get a fee and some kind of recording royalty,” Petel says.
While getting a point on the record is an accomplishment, it doesn’t guarantee writers money. Often, they won’t receive any royalties until the costs of recording and promoting a song are recouped. That’s why it’s important to ask for an upfront fee, according to Musgrave Glanzbergh. She finds that “when majors set aside part of the time for writers to work with an artist, it’s easier to get maybe a daily rate of $500 [for my clients].”
In some situations, Gurka has asked for a kill fee if artists and labels seem hesitant to push a single into the charts. “If a song plays on pop radio, we make money [through performance royalties] – can we put this in writing? he asks. “Can we put a kill fee in there in case the song doesn’t have an impact date or doesn’t reach a certain number on the [radio] chart?” A kill fee request tends to be higher – potentially $50,000 or more – assuming the money won’t be paid out if the label fulfills its obligations.
Changes in writers’ pay are currently centered on the top 40 pop spaces, but Nashville’s songwriting community is also taking notice. “Los Angeles is often five years ahead of us,” says Robert Carlton, senior vice president of development at SMACKSongs, which boasts a roster of 20 country writers, including hitmakers Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne. But “young writers are definitely unstable. [They’re asking,] “Did I miss the last window where I could actually make a living doing this?” There is more responsibility on artists and labels – you have to help here.
In 2019, country singer Kip Moore talked about paying bonuses to songwriters who appear on his albums to ensure they are fairly compensated. But even in Nashville, where songwriters are highly regarded, paying them more means someone else earns less. “Every time you try to change this status quo, there will be a setback,” says Gurka. His claims for compensation are often met with “an eye roll.” Gandhar Flavoran entertainment lawyer who represents writers and artists, says the writers’ demands have sparked “anger, shock [and] surprise,” in part because “those points that writers are asking for now come from artist royalties — labels don’t share that burden.”
Artists are already expected to pass on some of these royalties to their producers and mixers. An act with an 18-point royalty, for example, may actually end up with 13 points once the collaborators’ shares are assigned. This decreases further if songwriters are added. Several artist managers say it’s not fair for their clients to shoulder the burden of paying songwriters, saying it should fall on labels and even digital service providers.
If writers get more and more recording royalties for their work, Gurka hopes that labels – which typically earn far more points than their artists – will change their contracts accordingly. But artist managers note that labels are hesitant to set such a precedent. “Most companies will say, ‘We can’t give you a point, but we can give you a few thousand dollars,'” says Hannan Malik, founder of NowhereNear and manager of Plested (Lewis Capaldi, Little Mix) and others. He adds, however, that a label could gain a competitive edge by being more generous with songwriters. “If a company says, ‘We’re going to give everybody a point,’ they’ll get the best songs,” he says. “The more we ask for, the more likely it will become the norm.”
This story originally appeared in the June 25, 2022 issue of Billboard.