Songwriters Are Getting Drastically Short-Changed in the Music-Streaming Economy, Study Shows

Ever since the music industry began its streaming-fueled recovery around five years ago, the songwriting and publishing communities have been protesting not only the uneven payment structure of streaming — which sees recorded-music rights holders being paid three times what publishing is paid — but also the imbalanced power and payment structures of the music industry. This situation has been thrown into dramatic relief in recent weeks by the formation of the songwriters’ group the Pact and its calls for artists to stop demanding credit and publishing income for songs they did not write — but the organization’s founders also say that it is just the first step in a music economy that has tilted against the people who create the very foundation of that economy: songs.

To summarize that quickly, the music industry saw its total value cut in half by illegal downloading and other forms of piracy in the first years of the 21 st century; the drastic drop in CD sales meant that the once-substantial income derived by artists, labels, publishers from those sales had plummeted precipitously. But as streaming rose and the industry adapted, artists came to accept that their recorded music — which garnered a fraction of the income in the streaming world that it had in the CD era — had essentially become the way to bring people to the place where they really made money: concerts, where fans not only buy tickets but merchandise as well as CDs and albums.

Needless to say, songwriters saw little income from that business model — which has been completely up-ended by the pandemic. Now, with most areas of the business looking at streaming as a if not the primary generator of income, the songwriter’s plight is more dire than ever, according to “Rebalancing the Song Economy,” an authoritative new report by industry analysts Mark Mulligan and Keith Jopling of Midia Research(with an introduction by Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus).

The 35-page report, which is available here for free, lays out both the history of this dilemma and some (admittedly difficult) proposed solutions, but what may be unprecedented is the way that it lays out how skewed against songwriters the new music economy is. A handful of the many statistics from the study follow:

In a section titled “The Songwriter’s Paradox,” it lays out the ways that the song has become more important than ever, but, paradoxically, the songwriter has less income and influence

  • Big record labels have weaponized songwriting: In order to try to minimize risks, bigger record labels are turning to an ever more elite group of songwriters to create hits.
  • The emergence of the song economy: The audience has shift its focus from albums to songs.
  • Writing and production are fusing: As music production technologies have become more central to both the songwriting process and to the formation of the final recorded work, there has been a growing fusion of the role of production with writing. This has led to a growing body of superstar writer-producers.
  • The industrialization of songwriting: Record labels are reshaping songwriting by pulling together teams of songwriters to create “machine tooled” hits – finely crafted songs that are “optimized for streaming.” While the upside for songwriters is more work, the downside is sharing an already-small streaming royalties pot with a larger team of creators and co-writers.
  • Decline of traditional formats: Songwriters have long relied upon performance royalties from broadcast TV and radio. However, as the audiences on these platforms migrate towards on-demand alternatives, performance royalties face a long-term decline. Similarly, the continued fall in sales means fewer mechanical royalties for songwriters.
  • Streaming royalties: The song is the first in line culturally but it is last in line for streaming royalties. Of total royalties paid by streaming services to rights holders, between a fifth and a quarter is paid for publishing rights to the song. Labels are paid more than three times higher than publishers on streaming. An independent label artist could earn more than three thousand dollars for a million subscriber streams, whereas a songwriter could expect to earn between $1,200 and $1,400, and even then, only if they are the sole songwriter on the track. On average, songwriters will therefore earn between a third and a half of what artists do.

The report then proposes a series of solutions that are far too complex to summarize fully here, but in short:

The report concludes with a very British statement: “What is clear is that today’s’ song economy is not working as it should and that everyone across the value chain will benefit from a coordinated programme of change.”

In last week’s Variety article on the Pact, hit songwriter Justin Tranter expressed a similar sentiment in far more direct terms: “The business is definitely still broken and songwriters are definitely the least respected people in our industry, no matter how big of a songwriter you become.”

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