I am many things: a singer, a musician, a businessman, and a philanthropist. But above all, I am a songwriter.
At our core, songwriters are creators. We challenge ourselves and others to reflect on the world around us. And the work we produce has power—power to capture people’s emotions and imaginations like few other art forms, power to transcend traditional barriers of age, language and culture, and power to transform a conversation and generate positive social change.
But does our work as songwriters have value? Coming from someone who has spent his life working hard to master his craft in order to touch the lives of others, that may seem like an absurd question. But in today’s rapidly changing music marketplace, the answer is increasingly unclear. Just this week, Taylor Swift removed her music from Spotify—not because she doesn’t want you to stream her songs, but because she wants to be compensated fairly for her work. She wants Spotify to treat her work as though it has value. This problem ought to cause anyone who cares about the future of music—professionals and fans alike—to stand up and take note. Let me explain why.
Aloe Blacc is a singer, songwriter, and artivist best known for the hit singles “I Need a Dollar” and “I’m the Man.” He sings on and co-wrote the No. 1 hit “Wake Me Up!” by Avicii.
First, unlike most people in creative industries, songwriters seem to have less control over our work than ever before. Knock off a handbag design from a high-end fashion house or use a sports team’s logo in your new t-shirt line, and expect a lawsuit in short order. And good luck copying a big tech company’s patented innovation. You need express permission from the original creators to use or copy their work before you resell it. That’s how they protect the value of their work.
But the world doesn’t work that way for songwriters. By law, we have to let any business use our songs that asks, so long as they agree to pay a rate that, more often than not, was not set in a free market. We don’t have a choice. As such, we have no power to protect the value of the music we create.
The abhorrently low rates songwriters are paid by streaming services—enabled by outdated federal regulations—are yet another indication our work is being devalued in today’s marketplace.
Consider the fact that it takes roughly one million spins on Pandora for a songwriter to earn just $90. Avicii’s release “Wake Me Up!” that I co-wrote and sing, for example, was the most streamed song in Spotify history and the 13th most played song on Pandora since its release in 2013, with more than 168 million streams in the US. And yet, that yielded only $12,359 in Pandora domestic royalties— which were then split among three songwriters and our publishers. In return for co-writing a major hit song, I’ve earned less than $4,000 domestically from the largest digital music service.
If that’s what’s now considered a streaming “success story,” is it any wonder that so many songwriters are now struggling to make ends meet?
IN RETURN FOR CO-WRITING A MAJOR HIT SONG, I’VE EARNED LESS THAN $4,000 DOMESTICALLY FROM THE LARGEST DIGITAL MUSIC SERVICE.
The reality is that people are consuming music in a completely different way today. Purchasing and downloading songs have given way to streaming, and as a result, the revenue streams that songwriters relied upon for years to make a living are now drying up.
But the irony of the situation is that our music is actually being enjoyed by more people in more places and played across more platforms (largely now digital) than ever before. Our work clearly does have value, of course, or else it would not be in such high demand. So why aren’t songwriters compensated more fairly in the marketplace?
I firmly believe there must be a way for innovative new music services to succeed in the marketplace without undervaluing the contribution of songwriters. And, thankfully, I am not alone in that view.
Through performing rights societies, this summer songwriters successfully convinced the US Department of Justice to open a formal review of the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees that govern how the vast majority of American songwriters are compensated for our work. The world has changed dramatically since this regulatory framework was first established in 1941, but the consent decrees haven’t been updated since 2001—before the iPod even hit stores.
Updating the nation’s antiquated music licensing system will better serve the needs of not only music creators, like me, but businesses that use our music, consumers and the global marketplace for music. But the digital music services that see a financial advantage in maintaining the status quo are fighting hard to obstruct any meaningful reform.
I, for one, can no longer stand on the sidelines and watch as the vast majority of songwriters are left out in the cold, while streaming company executives build their fortunes in stock options and bonuses on the back of our hard work. Songwriting is truly a labor of love, one that often does not result in wealth. But I know the work we create has real value. And I believe policymakers will one day recognize that a system that allows digital streaming services to enjoy enormous profits while music creators struggle is imbalanced and broken.
Until that day comes, I will do my part to try to convince people that the music they love won’t exist without us, and that we, as songwriters, cannot continue to exist like this. And you can do your part to protect the music you love by buying albums and urging streaming services to uphold the value of songwriting. After all, if songwriters cannot afford to make music, who will?