The only leverage that writers have is with their editors. Many are now talking about the terms of contracts, late royalty payments and the lack of promised artist pairings, and are organizing to promote better terms and changes in streaming revenue distribution.
In recent months, author-led groups such as Songwriters of North America and the all-new 100 Percenters and The Pact have begun to educate and hold other creators accountable, denouncing the age-old problem of artists taking rights to editing on songs they didn’t write and lobbying songwriters to receive a share of recorded music revenue.
CEO of Hipgnosis Merck Mercuriadis, whose fund invests in publishing rights and would benefit from higher payouts, is also considering joining the fight. He says he already has hundreds of songwriters on board for a guild he plans to be similar to Hollywood’s Writers Guild of America, including Nile Rodgers, Ryan Tedder, Andrew Watt, Ali Tamposi and Tayla Parx.
“It’s no secret the songwriter is the lowest paid person in the equation,” says Mercuriadis. “No negotiation should take place that affects how a songwriter is paid if the songwriter is not represented in the negotiation.” He says the guild will operate independently of Hipgnosis, and although it has its own governance, it cannot structure itself as a union because a 1980s decision by the National Relations Labor Board classifies composers and lyricists as ” independent contractors ”.
The songwriters hope that a collective voice will give them more weight. So far, most have been reluctant to publicly ask for better deals, fearing they would be dropped or blacklisted for speaking out. “Without a union, one of the hardest things we’ve seen is that songwriters are afraid,” says the multi-platinum songwriter. Ross Golan. “We are walking a thin line, and most of those who are doing very well do not want to rock the boat.”
“I don’t know if it’s desperation to recover or – I don’t mean to call it greed but it might be – but the editors are actually going to start to get a little aggressive with the writers on what matters for the recovery and they will start to take the writers’ shares to recover ”, adds Michelle lewis, co-executive director of SONA.
Since July 2020, date on which Tiffany Red started The 100 Percenters (the name refers to the credit songwriters should get for their work), she focused on helping peers free from outdated publishing contracts and petitions to labels for provide writers with per diems and non-recoverable points on recordings. “There’s a lot of anxiety; it’s a bit of a hostile work environment,” she says, describing writers’ perceptions of their publishing partners. “There is a lot of trust that has been broken. But the publishing houses I have worked with are listening.”
This summer, each of the major publishers – Sony Music Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group, and Warner Chappell – pledged to drop minimum delivery commitments, which require authors to deliver a quota of songs deemed “marketed” before they can recover. fully on an advance and start receiving a higher royalty rate. This is a major blow as MDRCs can span years for a seemingly low minimum, depending on the number of authors per song. (Each only receives a percentage of a song’s credit over its minimum on a co-write.) Additionally, some publishers like Warner Chappell and BMG are adding frames to help record songs and administer royalties.
These moves signal a shift in the balance of power towards the songwriter that has been built since Kanye West sued Sony Music Publishing-owned EMI Music Publishing in 2019, claiming he was required to abide by the contractual conditions which he had respected for a long time. (West and EMI settled in February 2020.) Songwriters groups are regrouping and gaining more weight at a time when publishers face competition from venture capitalists and other non-traditional sources attracted by the long game of publishing income.
“We are at a time when publishing houses are open to [negotiating] because so many writers are unhappy and do not earn money, even those who work ”, explains the lawyer Brandie N. Johnson, who recently got Akil “Fresh” King, a 2021 Grammy Award-winning co-writer on Beyoncé’s Black Parade, on a publishing deal he had picked up months earlier but was mired in bureaucracy.
“If you’re a publisher and you’re not forward thinking,” King says, “your business will lose a lot of writers once people start talking about who has the best deals.”
“It’s absolutely clear that a lot of songwriters didn’t understand what they signed, what’s in their contract. They think they are signing a three-year deal, but that actually turns into a 10-year contract, ”explains Willard Ahdritz, founder and chairman of Kobalt Music Group, the independent rights management and publishing company that began shaking the industry in 2000 with alternative publishing deals. Ahdritz estimates that Kobalt has created nearly $ 10 billion in value for songwriters signed with the company. “From day one, we introduced the service contract,” he says. “You have full service, but you keep your rights.
Several managers of major publishing houses contacted by Billboard say they were already changing contracts and business practices before the recent public chorus of discontent. “We agree that MDRCs have become an archaic practice and only include them at the request of the songwriter or artist,” says Carianne Marshal, Co-chair / COO of Warner Chappell.
Of course, no matter how much writers organize themselves, a lot of things get out of their hands. They can’t affect what a stream pays or the way fans listen to streaming has amplified hits and squeezed the music middle class. But they can try to make songwriting less difficult.
“If a writer isn’t happy, it’s up to us to find out,” says an executive at a major publisher. “Not a week goes by that I’m talking about deals with existing songwriters and I’m like, ‘OK, we’re going to push you into the next contract period and waive the minimum commitment from here on out. . ‘ This is something we were doing long before it became a public issue. “
This story originally appeared in the September 18, 2021 issue of Billboard.