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Songwriting Royalties Aren't Keeping Up in the Age of Subscription Streaming

A call-to-arms petition is making waves in the songwriting community.
January 7, 2015, 5:00am
Grammy Award-winning songwriter Victoria Horn (Lady V) is leading a petition calling for change in royalty payment policies. (Photo via Lady V)

Over the past ten years, a downward trend in songwriting royalty payments has caused a disruption in the creative community. The rise of streaming music services and the plummeting of physical music sales have depleted songwriters' incomes even as their work continues to be sources of profit for other parties. A petition launched earlier this week by prominent songwriter Victoria Horn (also known as Lady V) is calling for change to the system.

Producer and composer Tim Fraser along with songwriters Si Hulbert (Jess Glynne, One Direction) and Dominic King (Wiley, Dizzee Rascal) also contributed to the petition. Known for her work on Dirty Vegas' Grammy-winning "Days Go By," Armin van Buuren's "Alone" and Riva and Dannii Minogue's "Who Do You Love Now?" to name a few, Horn is a typical working songwriter whose work is made up of singles and album tracks, hits and non-hits, across several genres and styles with a variety of artists. It's this kind of experience that makes Horn a sympathetic advocate to lead the cause.

Addressing a number of ailments of the songwriting community, the petition addresses the performing rights organizations (PROs) responsible for divvying out royalty payments to artists and songwriters alike. (PRS, ASCAP, BMI, and SECAC are called out by name, but several smaller organizations also operate in the field.) In it, Ms. Horn suggests changes to the recording/publishing split and advises an increase in the amount paid out per million plays while also coming down hard on the oft-ignored permissive practices of DMCA "safe harbor" clauses that allow for the use of songs on sites like YouTube without mechanical licenses.

With physical music sales at their lowest point ever and digital stales stagnant, the traditional revenue split between record labels and the publishers who represent songwriters has been long overdue for an update. Streaming services have been notoriously good for tech startups who, on reports of explosive user stats, raise major capital funding and great for labels who were previously without the means to generate any cash from the illegal mp3 download market. Streaming has been negligbly profitable for performing artists and songwriters, however. While the 50/50 split between recording and publishing that Horn and co demand in the petition might be unrealistic (there are fixed costs associated with running a label), it's unsustainble for both writers and labels to continue in a business model in which one side is cut out of the profits from a viable source of revenue.

When streaming services first started to appear in the early 00s, the task of assigning value to streaming plays became apparent. Some called for streaming plays to simply be grouped in with radio plays, and some called for a new category of royalty payment to be established. The industry chose the latter and an arbitrary value was assigned to streaming plays. Few expected early platforms like Rhapsody and a then-nascent Pandora to become linchpins of the industry and accordingly, nobody knew how much a single play should be worth. Thus, at the end of 2014, we can read news about Jessie J paying her rent for three years with royalties from writing Miley's 2009 single "Party In The USA" (a record that sold seven million copies in the US) and a few days later, find out that the writers of Pharell's 2013 hit "Happy" recieved a paltry $2,700 for their efforts (despite that song being played over 40 million times on Pandora alone).

Dirty Vegas' Grammy Award-winning song, "Days Go By," is one of petition leader Victoria Horn's many writing credits.

Several items in the petition might not sit well with fans. Calling for a "ZERO tolerance" policy on piracy as well as radical changes to DMCA "safe harbour" laws (these protect video sites such as YouTube as well as search engines from liability for unauthorized content that ends up on them) and blocking of song-ripping websites, Horn slams pirates in four of her ten points. The petition even threatens that the work of songwriters be "removed from all streaming services" if harsher anti-piracy laws not be enacted. Still, rather than making the Internet even more regulated, better deals with websites like YouTube and SoundCloud that host user-uploaded content will go a long way in alleviating damage done in other areas.

Some songwriters continue to pay their bills with ease. Most songwriters, however, do not. Artists like Calvin Harris, MNDR and Jon Hopkins can finance their own work by writing for pop artists who actually sell albums still (and in Harris' case by commanding significant DJing fees). But they are execptions to the rule. One thing is clear, however: a system where a song can get played on-demand one million times and only earn its writer $60 is out of date and unfair.

Want to support the songwriting community? You can sign the petition or leave a comment here.

Ziad Ramley is on Twitter: @ZiadRamley