It’s album sales stupid. Remember the slogan from candidate Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign, “It’s the economy stupid”? Well, there’s a similar aha feeling I get when I think about why there are less and less songwriters earning a living. Yes, we need to raise streaming rates. But the bigger culprit is the extinction of physical (or downloadable) album sales.
After spending the last couple of years with some fine colleagues learning about the inequitable workings of new business models and lobbying congressmen in our best business casual to amend an antiquated consent decree I came to a realization: streaming rates are SO low that even if we’re successful in raising them tenfold, it’s not going to change the tax bracket of the evaporated middle class. What it will do is increase what the top earners earn.
Okay, to be fair it will also ensure that if you’re in the 95% and you happen to land a U.S. hit, you’ll finally receive a windfall too (mostly from terrestrial radio and synch of course) and you’ll be upgraded (at least temporarily) to the 5%. But it’s not going to bring back…the middle class.
Albums are being made but it’s singles that are streamed (or aired) over and over again. These days an album cut, sadly, is pretty much inconsequential financially.
Once, songwriters were able to earn a healthy living from the album cut. Even album cuts only. If you wrote a song that was included on an record that sold 2 million copies (and that wasn’t unusual), at an 8¢ mechanical royalty rate the song would earn about $160,000. Nice. You did that once a year, you were golden.
I don’t like to be a Debby Downer. And I do feel there’s hope, which I’ll address in a minute. But we’re fooling ourselves if we believe that all we have to do is fix streaming rate issues and our statements will return to pre-millennium normal. And we’ll all be able to quit tutoring or waitressing or driving an uber.
But here’s why we still have to fix steaming rates.
- Tech companies who profess that music should be free are making a killing from “free” music. Our music. So if we’re the ones who create the only product that drives a business we should be participating in the wealth of that business. Whether it’s a million dollars, fifteen-thousand dollars or 10¢.
- I believe we (SONA, CMC, NMPA, NSAI, CCC… etc…) will be successful in changing the laws. And when radio disappears and the only way music is accessed is through streaming, these plays will add up.
- By law creators should be able to negotiate the price of their goods in a free market. Songwriting is the only profession in America whose income is regulated by the government.
Still, we might want to hang onto that day job, at least until we get a piece of a huge radio single. Maybe it behooves us to embrace the fact that we’re not going to be able to quit (just yet). And maybe we can start thinking about how that job may surprisingly enrich our lives. Maybe we’ll find another calling…something else we feel passionate about.
“Wizzer’s Bad Day” is a book that I used to read to my daughter. If Wizzer (a puppy), got soaked by sprinklers he considered it his daily bath…he made lemonade from lemons all day long. There are opportunities waiting in classrooms and taxi cabs and restaurants. You never know when or where you’ll find your luck. Luck has more of a chance when we believe it does. It’s as simple as that. Our attitudes are more powerful than we know.
I think we’ve got to be realistic, my friends.
That said…here’s the hope:
Michelle Lewis and I had the pleasure of meeting and delving into conversation with Richard Stumpf, of Atlas Music Group, at this year’s Friends and Family Grammy party. He had an interesting point of view. After listening to the two of us kvetch about the value of our work, he pointed out that there are investors out there throwing tons of cash into owning copyrights and signing writers. Why would they do this if they felt the value of music was permanently f*cked—if the market wasn’t going to eventually correct itself? Investors don’t throw money around without good information.
Michelle and I questioned how the songwriter community can compete against the vast money-packed tech lobby. Richard suggested that when all is said and done and a little more time is had, the heartbeat of Alicia Keys making her case in a congressman’s office is going to trump yet another lobbyist in yet another suit. Gosh. How I want to believe that.
My very wise attorney (and dear friend) Mark Levinsohn, has expressed the same opinion. He’s advised me there’s no rush to sell my catalogue which reverted recently. He too, feels certain about the future. Go figure.
How will all of this play out? Beats me. But then I ask myself: Twenty years ago, who on earth could have imagined that music would be delivered by an invisible digital stream? We would have thought it delusional. So who’s to say what will come about tomorrow? We know it’s not the return of vinyl or CDs, but maybe it’s something else—something that will put creators back in favor.
Until then, don’t quit the day job, but don’t lose faith.
Remember...glass half full…(of lemonade).