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Songwriters get pitiful amounts as streaming offers tiny royalties
Writers of today’s hits earn as little as $20 for every million streams by online listeners
By Deana Sumanac-Johnson, CBC News
Posted: May 06, 2016 11:00 AM ET Last Updated: May 06, 2016 11:15 AM ET
They’re the brains that create the songs you love, but don’t expect songwriters to be able to make a living by writing hits that get millions of plays on streaming services.
“I’ll get a cheque in the mail for $20 for a million streams, and that just makes absolutely no sense to me,” says Canadian songwriter Luke McMaster, who’s penned hits for the likes of Rihanna and recently had a song he co-wrote get a million streams on Spotify.
McMaster is not alone. Though copyright laws vary from one country to another, the sentiment among songwriters is uniform: a hit song, when streamed, will buy a pizza, but not support a family.
American songwriter Kevin Kadish, who co-wrote the body-positive anthem All About That Bass with Meghan Trainor, complained to the U.S. Congress that he received $5,679 US for a song that had 178 million streams.
Songwriter Michelle Lewis recently revealed that she received a $17 US cheque for co-writing Wings, a hit for the British girl group Little Mix that had three million streams on Spotify.
Because they’re not celebrities in their own right, the songwriters’ problems have received less publicity than, say, Adele or Taylor Swift’s beefs with the streaming services.
“The songwriters have the least sort of leverage to be able to stand up for their rights,” says Toronto-based entertainment lawyer Safwan Javed, who also sits on the board of the Songwriters’ Association of Canada and behind the drum kit of the band Wide Mouth Mason.
“We’re in the Wild, Wild West situation with respect to how music is distributed these days and the role of various players play within that chain.”
Who gets the money?
The “players” he mentions are the streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, etc.), music labels and music publishers that typically represent songwriters and collect royalties on their behalf.
Historically, songwriters and music publishers made a small portion of profits anytime a song was sold or played on the radio. But copyright laws written decades ago could not have predicted the birth of streaming, where music is neither sold nor broadcast in a traditional sense.
Still, streaming services make money from advertising and paid-tier subscriptions — so why is so little of it ending up in the songwriters’ pockets?
“Spotify does contribute 70 per cent of our revenues to rights holders, so that’s a really big part of how we’re paying back into the industry, and we paid over $3 billion to the rights holders,” says Nathan Wiszniak, label relations specialist for Spotify Canada.
But just who the “rights holders” are is open to interpretation. Record labels have managed to strike deals with streaming services that enable them to take a slice of the profit anytime an artist’s song is played. But songwriters and music publishers — owners of the rights to the song’s music and lyrics — are not part of those deals.
“They have no system actually in place, for dealing with and assessing who are their stakeholders, who are the rights holders, who are the writers and who are the publishers,” says Javed.
“They haven’t done a very good job at proactively going out there and figuring out who they need to license the works from and pay for those uses.”
Fair trade music
Different people propose different solutions to the problem. In Canada, songwriters’ associations have petitioned the Copyright Board to adopt laws that better protect the rights of music creators. South of the border, songwriters have launched a $150 million US class-action lawsuit against Spotify as a reimbursement for lost royalties.
But Javed believes a quicker and more meaningful solution is in the hands of music lovers.
“I’ve really lost a lot of faith in the governmental sector doing something to fix this.”
Instead, he’s a proponent of Fair Trade Music, a campaign that seeks to certify streaming services, record labels, even album releases, that fairly compensate all music creators.
Fair Trade Music has tens of thousands of signatories around the world, and Javed believes ethical-minded consumers will gravitate towards it the way they do to fair trade coffee.
But for Luke McMaster, there’s no time to wait. A singer in his own right, he’s now touring to promote his new album — an option for him, but not for many other songwriters.
“It is a function of who you are, it’s almost like breathing, so I’m not going to stop writing songs,” he says.
“But for myself and a lot of my peers, it’s making it a lot more difficult. I have friends in the industry, some of the most talented people I have known, that have just given up.”