Part 1: What the F#*% is Going On?
You’re a songwriter, right? I mean, that’s why you're reading this. Your day consists of co-writes and sessions and scheduling more of those. You sit at a computer or with a guitar on your lap, or at a keyboard or behind a mic in a dark-ish studio… hashing out a better melody for the end of the chorus, or a better first line, or where to order lunch from this time.
“Are you guys hungry?” Someone always asks that… it’s usually me.
And contrary to popular opinion, you probably DON’T sit around thinking about money.
In fact, the details of how songwriters get paid are details that cause most of us to get that glazed-over, sleepy-eyed look of a high school freshman in 1st period Earth Science. (And now I’m bored just thinking about it.)
We live in a “songwriter bubble.” And while you and I are busy writing songs and hustling to write more songs… we leave the “getting paid” thing to the people who work at the companies whose names we see at the tops of our checks - ASCAP, BMI, SESAC… or Universal, SONY/ATV, Disney, etc.
But for the past few years, things have been changing. More importantly, those checks have been changing.
My writing partner Kay Hanley and I emerged from our own little songwriting bubble in November of 2014. (We write all of the songs for an animated Disney series - 56 songs in 9 months - eek!). It was also around November, 2014, that problems with how little artists get paid for use of their work on streaming media platforms began to surface. Taylor Swift’s beef with Spotify, Aloe Blacc’s op-ed piece and related articles about streaming music and songwriters got the viral social-media treatment and reached the zeitgeist.
Terrestrial radio is still going strong, TV licensing rates are still decent… despite the hit that songwriters took when people stopped buying “albums,” a songwriter can still make a living on some combination of performance royalties, digital sales, work-for-hires, licensing, etc. When we look at our royalty statements from ASCAP or BMI (or SESAC), we see the things that earn us the most money first. I have to admit, I never looked for what I was getting paid from Spotify. (Also, its on the last page of my ASCAP statement.)
I knew it would be measly. But I wasn’t prepared for just how measly.
The 3 million plus streams on pop single I co-wrote called “Wings” for the group Little Mix, earned me, um… care to guess? ($2.38 would be the correct answer)
Part 2: What The F#*% Do We Do About It?
Kay and I had a check-in breakfast with our friend, Brendan Okrent. I call her “the songwriter whisperer” for all the times she’s talked the lot of us off the ledge during her 20 years of working at ASCAP. So we asked Brendan, “what the f#*% is going on?” Her answer was,“Look, I know it’s bad for you guys right now… you should meet with my friend Dina.”
Her friend Dina is Dina LaPolt… this tall, skinny rock chick who also happens to be a badass entertainment lawyer and prominent advocate for creators rights. Kay and I walked into her office - knowing pretty close to nothing besides what we had read on Facebook - and proceeded to get SCHOOLED by Dina.
For two hours in her office, Dina told us about all the shady deals have been made on our behalves and about all the people who are NOT songwriters and yet have speaking FOR songwriters and then she YELLED at us for being no-shows in the whole process. And why isn’t there some kind of unified voice beyond the PRO’s for creators in Los Angeles??? Which happens to be where most of the creators actually live??? We did not know the answer to that. So at the end of the two hours our jaws were on the floor (and we were probably trembling a little), and we both were like, “Holy SH*#! That is F#*%ED up! We have to tell our friends!!”
Dina asked us, “how many friends can you get together?
And we answered, “A hundred?”
And she thought we were kidding and we thought she was kidding.
No one was kidding.
My dear friends Shelly Peiken and Pam Sheyne were my first calls. Kay reached out to her peeps. Our friends told their friends… and, exactly like that commercial in the 70’s… (and so on… and so on), we began to form a core group - Jack Kugell, Andrew Rollins, Mike ‘Smidi’ Smith, Erika Nuri, TJ Stafford, Claudia Brant, Helene Muddiman, Chris Horvath, Eve Nelson, et al.
We sifted through information as it came flying at us. Broke it down (thank you Chris and Jack), and tried to reform it into digestible songwriter-sized pieces. We did research. We sent emails. We blew off pre-existing politics, alliances and grievances and grew the group, person by person.
And on April 28th, 2015 - we gathered over 100 hundred songwriters in Studio A of United Recording (which used to be Ocean Way). People who write songs for a living… first and foremost… emerged from their caves to be at the same place at the same time! Our peers, friends and collaborators SHOWED UP!!!
At United Recording, we ate some food and drank some drinks, and then Chris Horvath (our “Minister of Breaking-It-Down”) gave a presentation on how songwriters get paid(not a glazed-over eye in the house!). Then Dina schooled those 100-plus songwriters about how we’re NOT getting paid (the same way she schooled Kay and I). People got riled up, asked questions and wanted to DO something.
And that’s how babies are made! Or at least, that’s how our SONA baby came to be.
It turns out, we are at a point in time, right now, when we MUST find out, together, what the f#*% is going on… for our songwriter selves… and for our songwriter friends. Because it is US, my friends, who have the most to lose if we don’t.