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Songwriters are taking it on the chin. What’s the solution?

In January copyright law (technology and music) expert Chris Castle posted a great interview with Rick Carnes the President of the Songwriter’s Guild.

Carnes speaks for the songwriters that are getting screwed in today’s tech-driven, share-don’t-care world of music and celebrity labels. Songwriters “don’t sell t-shirts, don’t play shows, and don’t have all the other income streams available to them” (as the performers do). They are getting “remixed out of culture”. As a consequence, “there are fewer and fewer original professional songwriters around every year.” “The days of the ‘stand alone’ songwriter appear to be over.” “Songwriters were the number one loser of income in the US economy in 2004”. “We (songwriters) make our money on record sales and radio airplay. Or, we USED to make our money on record sales. Illegal downloading ended that. Now we are looking for new jobs.”

I agree with Carnes, the death of the songwriter as a career is detrimental to the music industry. The quality of music suffers. Here’s another quote from Carnes: “You (labels) can get kids who don’t need money to support families or pay house notes to sign contracts that no thinking adult would sign. This allows a record label to exploit ‘this year’s model’ for all they are worth until they reach the end of their contract and want to renegotiate for decent terms. Then they simply replace them with another teen idol. The simplicity of the music has allowed the major labels to treat recording artists like ‘temp workers’.”

I also concur with the causes of death: “The internet has turned into a Cyber-Somalia….” “Music piracy killed record sales so that made it impossible for music publishers to recoup the advances they paid songwriters….” In addition, record labels using controlled composition clauses within record contracts have manipulated down the statutory rate paid out to songwriters.

Where Carnes and I conceptually differ is in solving the problem. It’s not that I don’t believe in the merit of solutions that both Carnes and Castle advocate, I honestly can’t fathom what seems to me like trying to spin the world the other way. I’m far too ignorant (even after reading Chris Castle’s blog for a year) to wade into a debate with the ‘free culture’ nuts advocates; copyright law is a sleeping pill to me; ending file sharing somehow seems like shoveling shit against the tide while playing whac-a-mole; and moving Congress is an act of…moving Congress.

My “arrogant and self-serving” (another quote form Carnes ☺) and oversimplified analysis and solution is as follows (see diagram below): In the past, a songwriter wrote a song (a); a pile of revenue was generated from music sales and royalties (b) and then split accordingly; and another pile of revenue was generated from (c) other things (t-shirts, tickets, appearances and so on).

With the way the world seems to be undeniably going, the first pile of revenue (b) is either disappearing or being lumped into the second pile of revenue (c) thanks to 360 deals and other contractual arrangements (read Castle’s entire post).

What’s seemingly obvious from my perspective is that (a) still gets you (c). I don’t care how much celebrity manufacturing you throw at an artist, the better (a) is…the bigger (c) will be. Great songs generate piles of money; undeniably, it’s the piles that are shifting.

As I said above, fighting for (b) is far too arduous and complicated for my head. I just want to find a way to connect (a) and (c) together simply and today.

Here’s my solution: nobody has ever known for sure what the present value of song (a) is, as investing in songs has always been pure speculation. My friend Ralph says: “Songs are like oil wells. You drill a lot of dry holes, but occasionally you find a gusher.” However in today’s almost-free music marketplace, the gushers are further apart and nobody knows what’s going to come out of the wellhole. So it’s only logical that nobody wants to pay much for (a), when (c) is such an unquantifiable quantity?

What seems to make sense would be to enable songwriters to sell future options where bidders purchase (today) the right to pay a set price (determined by the songwriter) in the future. Songwriters would auction these future payment rights along with all the rights and income streams legally attached to the song. Buyers would be obligated to make future payments (prices predetermined by the songowner and most likely escalating) at set intervals. Buyers would lose all rights, including the right to perform (if I had it my way), if a payment was missed. It even seems like this could be done on either an exclusive or non-exclusive basis.

If a song is a dry wellhole, the purchaser simply ceases to make payments. If a song is a gusher, the purchaser happily makes every payment on time.

Once again, my knowledge in this area is limited, and this idea may not even be novel? Moreover, this brainstorm may require scrapping everything in place today; if that’s the case, we may as well go back to fighting for (b), which is probably a lost cause. What do you think? Is there another solution outside of trying to claw back (b) from the maw of the Internet and the self-interests of big labels?

Reader Comments (20)

Doesn't the Carnes quote deliberately get it wrong, though? Sure, the shiny New Kids are cheap, ignorant labor, but they're also emphatically not their own songwriters. Carnes, as with most people who are holding both grievances and vested interests, would like to have things both ways: 1. these new pop sensations aren't nearly as good as us pro songwriters, but yet somehow 2. we're all losing our jobs to them.

Neither is true. Songwriters are losing their jobs because they're expensive employees. Pop stars will always need someone with actual chops and talent to make them hit singles, though. Ultimately, Carnes is complaining because his previous subsidized racket is no longer working out, and he still feels entitled to it.

Well, learn Pro Tools, old dude. Pay attention to the models that work: in-house production teams who will write your song, coach you through it, record you doing it, pitch correct your chump ass, then mix + master it for delivery to the label they're contracted with.

The more we specialize, the less we can adapt. And the more we complain, the less we can change.

April 6 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

"Well, learn Pro Tools, old dude. Pay attention to the models that work: in-house production teams who will write your song, coach you through it, record you doing it, pitch correct your chump ass, then mix + master it..."

Hmm. That's still a song to me.. This more-finished/polished version/product still goes into the auction to be perhaps purchased by a brand, or possibly by an established artist.

What you have done, is inflated the overhead and increased the ROI needed. Now, that may not be a bad thing if the auction price exceeds the upfront investment.

April 6 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

You're dead on.

April 6 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Excellent idea, Bruce. The returns on a song do make sense to be purchased as futures. I see the bigger decision (or difficulty) is how to set up a market for music futures. Who would be the main consumer? Musicians? Labels?

On an unrelated note, while I do have sympathy for anyone who is suffering in the music industry, I have always found "professional songwriters" to be a strange bunch. For one thing, I tend not to like songs that are pro-written, as they are almost inevetably written according to formula and watered down for the mainstream. But more to the point, did painters ever employ people to envision their images for them, before painting it themselves?

Non-performing songwriters are important people, and I don't want their careers to disappear. But I'm not sure I really enjoyed their work that much in the first place...

April 6 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

Hi Bruce. This is a great idea but putting it into practice might be a bit tough. Typically in the old infrastructure, when a songwriter has a new song they shop it around privately and grant "first use" rights to someone. However, once that song has been released into the public (on someone's album - but now I think if it is so much as put online where anyone can see it) the first use rights are gone and cannot be recovered. At that point, no one can prevent someone else from covering the song in live performances or covering it in recordings. There are statutory rights that then must be paid to the song owner but they are dictated by law (mechanical and performance royalties).

So, the flaw in your system would be in trying to prevent someone from using and performing that song if they didn't live up to the "first use" payments they agree to (since I don't think you can bind someone to a contract in which they give up law-dictated rights (but I'm not a lawyer) AND the mere public shopping of the song (by posting it to a publicly viewable website) is an act that in and of itself forfeits the first use rights.

This should all be confirmed by a knowledgeable attorney but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

April 6 | Unregistered CommenterMike McCready

@mike.. I believe you could claw back the right to enable an artist to perform a song if he had contracted his willingness to give up that right in the first place. I don't pretend that this proposal would prevent everyone else from 'covering' the song, just the guy that failed to pay..

@justin.. I am continually surprised at the quantity of songs I really like that go unheard; usually due to the fact that the artist is not able (for multiple reasons) to perform. I would love to see (hear) some of these un-formulaic songs see the light of day via exposure from a brand or through the efforts of a performing artist.

April 6 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila

I had a lot of experience with Rick Carnes back in 2003 when he was a recurring guest at one of my college classes. He was one of the original proponents for the Hillary Rosen-driven RIAA lawsuits, and his entire argument falls apart by his failure to answer one simple question:

- You claim "illegal" file sharing is depriving you of revenues - but what evidence do you have that anyone who's traded or downloaded a song would have bought it anyway?

Neither he, nor Rosen, nor David Israelite or anyone else from that insular community can ever answer the question (and I've posed it, in person, to each of them). To them its all about political talking points, getting paid, and to hell with any new vehicle for commerce or innovation.

April 6 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor Trask

Why does everything have to be royalty based? An alternative model is to sell the right to perform a song to a band for a lump sum. The cost of tracking all of these tiny royalties often exceeds the value of the royalties. You want to make $200K - sell 10 songs for $20K each. Want to make 200K next year, write another 10 songs. Write your contracts to allow multiple sales after some period has elapsed. You lose out on hits in this model, but you get paid for duds. Your income is stable if you keep writing.

April 6 | Unregistered CommenterJon Smirl

I think Rick Carnes comes across as kind of a "bring back the Pony express" and support the Chimney Sweep Union Local Number 5 kind of guy.

Will the job of "mainstream songwriter" indeed go the way of the telegraph operator and the hand shoe maker? How many people under 21 are actually listening to the radio and buying CDs? None that I know. Will there even be a "mainstream" in the future, with continued fragmentation of the media? It seems to me that people who are excelling in the new environment are extremely unique and stand out. Instead of trying to live off the royalties of a platinum plaque that was hyped through endless repetition, maybe make your business model finding 1000 true fans that respond to what only you can do.

You're completely free to make any type of deal you want, here in the U.S. at least. Why not make a deal directly with the artist or company to make a percentage of the revenue stream your composition generates, or negotiate an upfront fee, or charge hefty hourly rates, instead of just relying on mechanical and performance royalties? Instead of writing for a few major labels and 50 or less "hit" artists, maybe there are whole other markets out there to buy what expert songwriters are selling. Why not leverage new technology to gain access to new markets? I dunno, it's a pretty complex situation and I'm not in Nashville where it's hitting the most, but I would think that there's always ways to monetize things that are scare, such as a great writers time and expertise.

April 6 | Unregistered CommenterSuperfly

It's an interesting solution to this problem that you propose here. This is the kind of radical new thinking that songwriters and musicians are going to have to embrace if they're going to survive.

"but I would think that there's always ways to monetize things that are scar[c]e, such as a great writers time and expertise."

I'd hope that this is always going to be true: people willing to part with their hard-earned for something that they recognise (or they are told to recognise) as quality.

Also, I'm down with TaylorTrask - this 'illegal file sharing has killed the industry' is getting more and more hollow each time I hear it. It really hasn't.

What's killed the industry is their inability to keep up with how people are enjoying music in the 21st century. They are dinosaurs, too old and too slow to keep up and too busy employing over-wrought, protectionist tactics which end up hurting them even more.

"I also concur with the causes of death: “The internet has turned into a Cyber-Somalia….” "

The internet is THE biggest opportunity for independent musicians and songwriters that the world has ever seen. Sure, those unable or unwilling to adapt - to seek out and exploit new opportunities - are going to struggle but real talent, coupled with hard work and a dose of optimistic experimentation, has the world at its fingertips.

I guess song writers are going to have to learn to become song performers too....

Volume 11
Music News for Music People

April 7 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

Songwriters are expensive! If we could do it in a central way - then maybe itll cost less!

Let me explain:

form a songwriter corp. and then catch 20 or 30 songwriters! I know it sounds weird but this "mass-songwriting" would save the "songwriter's job". and if there are many orders, the cost can be set down..

so.. only the sole earner is dead ( if he's not that famous...)

April 7 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

Well...gadzooks, that's an excellent point, Bruce. Compared to a piano and a notebook, adding record/mix/master to the equation is a lunatic-sized investment. I appreciate the correction.

April 7 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

I don't get it. Isn't the proposal that Bruce is making exactly what a label or publisher does? Make a bet on an artist's future revenue streams?

What am I missing?

April 8 | Unregistered CommenterJAF

JAF.. you do get it. close to exactly....

However, this would be an open marketplace with no middlemen taking a cut, and upside revenue to the songwriter would not be driven off of royalties. The upside revenue is a fixed, known and auctioned contract. The songwriter would only get what he contracted for and then auctioned off..

April 8 | Registered CommenterBruce Warila


Great composers and songwriters honed their craft and not their talent as performers

Burt Bacharac wrote great songs with Hal David
Grease has some great songs in it
So does Carmen, The Magic Flute, and The Ring cycle

Frank Sinatra performed other people's songs well
So did Elvis
So does Cecilia Bartoli (opera, check her out)

Elton John and Prince perform their own stuff. If I had the choice, I'd prefer to be Burt, Mozart or Elvis any day.

Composing, songwriting and performing are three things that for the most part to be truly great at one has to dedicate the bulk of ones life to. Many of the jazz greats couldn't write more than a few tunes. Very few bands have the songs and the performance chops to last a lifetime.

Great singers need great songs. A song is either great or it isn't. Just because a song is written for someone doesn't mean it's immediately useless. And just because it hasn't been 'produced up' to current (i.e. out of date within 2 years) standards it doesn't mean it isn't valuable in its own right.

If great songs weren't inherently great they would never get covered again and again. In those songs lies the value, no matter what flavour of the month glitter is sprinkled on them. And performers come to them time and time again.

People do cover versions of great songs 'cos they're great. Whether the original composer performed them or not at some point is irrelevant.

And of course, songwriting is different from other types of music which rely heavily on production to get a message across. I'm not arguing with anyone here, I'm just saying that we need to be aware of the scope of the word 'songwriting'.

Let's not forget that songwriters, like anyone with talent, are subject to market forces. If someone writes amazing songs (and there are very few of these people) then they're like goldust and they won't write for you even if you want them to. And you probably couldn't afford them. And if they did, they'd want a share that reflected their talent/name/whatever.


April 10 | Unregistered CommenterJulian Moore

I found the interview to misstate the issue and the solution.

I favor reasonable copyright terms, and have no problem with the notion of song-writers
wanting to avoid piracy of their works during a reasonable copyright term.

The problem is that the structural changes in the record industry which affect songwriters are not simply a matter of "internet piracy changed the game". Instead, the record companies themselves adopted a business model based on high CD prices and the dropping of many mid-list artists from their rosters. This was not done as a reaction to "internet piracy", but instead was a profit maximization device. The decline of song-writing staffs outside of Nashville began long before the internet was invented. The Brill Building was not eroded by
the internet, but by the performing artist who wrote her/his own songs. In more modern times, songwriters are one more resource that record companies tried to do without. Yet we see song-writing teams at work to this day, even as every American Idol would be star launches a "solo career" with songs written by professional song-writers.

A small, vibrant, legal remix culture exists in which artists pay for use of samples, and in which samples are placed in the Creative Commons by song-writer/artists. This legal remix culture is no threat to song-writers. The illegal use of samples to do remixes has not created a wellspring of chart-topping new music which cuts out song-writers. The claim to the contrary is a chimera.

Legal digital downloads are booming. The songs downloaded are massive and increasing. The technology provides less compensation to record companies. This is not an evil of piracy, but a virtue of a new technology which the consumer prefers. I agree with you that I would prefer to never see anyone download illegally. But the statistics show that people still purchase tons of units of music--the dollar amount of sales dropped, but that's because the technology changed. In the same vein, the reason why the sales figures were so high was the way in which the price for CDs got fixed at a rate much higher than that for LPs, and stayed that way.
The technology gave the consumer a chance to buy a legal download from iTunes or Amazon at a lesser price and with more options about how many songs from an album to buy. The consumer and the market, not piracy, dictated this choice.

The reason a substantial minority of us now listen primarily to share-legally-because-we-care Creative Commons netlabels is that the record companies and its constituents have adopted a business model designed to exclude the mid-list artist, the song-writer, and the consumer who wants better options than the over-priced CD offered.

As to the solution, of course song-writers could market directly to the public at large, via auction or what-have-you. The primacy of the song as the key commodity dates back to the time when sheet music and not recordings was the primary product. Song-writers with pluck did not merely sell out to a publisher, but paid to publish their own works--and reaped their own profits.

When industry lobbyists suggest to the media that the music industry model's failure is merely a matter of internet piracy, they ignore the many other industry-driven factors which contribute to the decline--a failure to adjust to the new recording technology, the loss of hegemony over the radio, and the broad public dissatisfaction with the way record companies release product.

We can all have a dialogue about how to reduce illegal downloading. But it is inaccurate to state that songwriters, who were becoming endangered long before the primacy of the internet, are merely internet victims. .

April 16 | Unregistered Commentergurdonark

There are many elements that go into a "great" song. Of course it starts with the writer and his/her vision of the story. Then it takes a small miricle for it to become "great." It takes the right song for the right artist with the right producer with the right players with the right team and the right timing. A "great" song is a true piece of art in that if it produces a true emotion from the listener (laugh, cry, sing, dance, argue, mad, jealous, or any other range of emotion) it should be rewarded properly with compensation if the listener would like to have ownership of that three and half minutes of emotion. Now, please don't mix up a "great" song with a "number 1" song. A "number 1" song is based on marketing and popularity and can absolutely suck when compared to a "great song."

One is correct in saying that the Internet is the greatest thing that can happen for independent artist out there that want to bring in 1,000 people per show. If they want to give away their music in order to pack the house, please do so. That is a great marketing tool for them if they write their own stuff and don't care about making the money on the recordings but on ticket sales. But one day they will dry up and have nothing for their hard work that they gave away for free.

April 28 | Unregistered CommenterBobby

I see myself in a dream, in a world,
where day & night I shine,
I see myself in a dream, in a world,
where day & night I shine,


When everything seems blink,
in a world where hardship drags you down,
when your light has been overshadow by
darkness, it doesnt mean you can't continue shining,

I see myself in a dream, in a world,
where day & night I shine,
I see myself in a dream, in a world,
where day & night I shine,


Your find home inside my heart,
where it's always warm,
& where your prayers can be heard,
& your soul is set free,
faith will see you right,
if you only believe,

I see myself in a dream, in a world,
where day & night I shine,
I see myself in a dream in a world,
where day & night I shine,


Somedays can feel like forever,
theres never been a short Sunday,
I'm dreaming of a world where
hope is given to everyone,
I shine in my dreams,

I see myself in a dream, in a world,
where day & night I shine,
I see myself in a dream in a world,
where day & night I shine,


November 6 | Unregistered CommenterShine

As I wonder with you through
this world holding each others hand,
it's much more then love what we have,
so what are we suppose to do with it,
it's much more then love what we have,
(it's much more then love,]
in a world that belongs to us,
(it's much more then love,)
as I gaze up into the stars with you
searching for a planet to call ours,
it's much more then love,
just my love for you,
& your love for me,
it's much more then love,
it's more then love,
it's much more then love,
it's more then love,
As I wonder with you,
I say to you I'll always love you,
I want you more then you know,
oh baby I love you so much,
& I know you feel the same way
becuase I felt it in your kiss,
let's make a promise that we'll
be in love together forever,
it's much more then love
what we have, yes I'll marry you,
it's much more then love what we have
in a wolrd that belongs to us,
it's more then love what me & you have,

bleek in shine

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