I’ve never charged a fee to write a song...with the exception of a network buyout. I was lucky to be able to make a living doing what I loved. Back when albums sales were prolific, we didn’t need to get on every record in order to sustain a livelihood. We got on enough and the wins balanced out the losses. So we were cool.
Songwriters receive roylaties when and if a recorded song is commercially aired or sold. We aren't paid for writing it…not even with Adele.
Well things have changed and royalties from album sales have dried up. Still, it's never entered my mind to charge to write. Something about it feels a little "whory". You either sleep with someone because you love them or….they pay you?
Recently I was in a studio for two days writing with an artist for his album. There was a budget for this record, some of which was being allocated to the producer, whose manager was savvy enough to demand a day rate.
My song may very well not wind up on this artist's album. Even if it does, unless it’s a single, it’s pretty much fiscally irrelevant. So what will I have to show for my two days in the studio with my sleeves rolled up? This was the thought that occurred to me on my ride home from Day #2.
Well, there’s a new breed of "Topliner" on the scene who are charging a fee for their valuable time and service. (A Topline for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a millennial term for the melody and lyric a writer conjures up to go with a piece of music…because it needs a plot, clever words, sound bites, and a catchy hook in order to qualify as a song. I know, a Topline used to be THE SONG. Don’t get me started. I’m going with the flow.)
When a producer asks one of these gals (or guys) to co-write, the Topliner presents his/her day rate, or they may ask the producer to allocate for them when budgeting. Or, should the song fail to make it onto a record and producer licenses it elsewhere, Topliner participates in that licensing fee. Seems fair to me. And apparently many producers out there are agreeable. We appreciate their support.
One of my young colleagues laments, ”I’m tired of working for free and being asked to cough up lunch money.” Alejandra Alberti says she charges on a sliding scale depending on whether an artist has a legitimate record deal or not, or if there’s even a budget involved at all. If they refuse to “hire” her, she politely suggests they try someone else. But they usually call her back.
“Really?” I ask. “Yes,” she replies. “Our biggest problem is that we’re afraid to ask.”
Gasp…it’s true. I’m definitely afraid to ask.
She elaborates…if anything she feels more respected. They think of her as a “baller.” (This is a new word in my vocabulary, btw. To me it always meant crying or fucking. But apparently, in 2016 it means "badass.")
Me-“And what if you’re not on your game that day, and you’re being paid a thousand bucks? Don’t you feel guilty?”
She-“That doesn’t happen. When we’re being compensated, we’re raised up. It’s psychological. We feel valued. And we write a better song.”
Wow. Makes sense.
Me-“What if you’ve had no big hits to speak of? Don’t artists want to be in the room with hitmakers?”
She-“Many of us are bubbling under and a smart producer wants to be there when we boil. Right?”
True—sometimes someone without a smash to their name, suddenly writes one. I mean…anyone who ever had one, at one time didn’t. So I guess the client is paying for work ethic, track record, batting average, near misses and probability.
Me-“And what if your song doesn’t make the record?"
But I’m catching on now and I answer my own question: we can at least treat ourselves to a spa day with a few gal pals, or that All Saints killer leather jacket. Or for some of us…pay the rent! That’s right, we are getting on huge records and we still can't pay the rent. At least we'd have a consolation prize. Something decadent...or necessary.
Hmm…this new breed is on to something. I am learning a lot.
I don’t blame them at all. That said, why do I still feel kinda icky about joining the movement? Is it….Pride? Do I fear it’s a reflection on my success—that it implies I haven’t written the kind of chart breaking single that would have me unconcerned with a day rate? Because in my case, I have. That's not the point! I've heard that Ester Dean, a proven phenomenon, charges thousands to show up. What say you, Ester?
And...would Julia Roberts be ok with taking on a movie role for free because she already has fortune and fame?
Thing is, this is about preserving our worth. We have skills that took decades to hone. Many-a-broken heart went into the lyrics of “Stay” and “Skyscraper” and “I’ll Be Seeing You”. Everybody’s business models are changing and the industry is bending to meet them. Why shouldn’t they bend to meet ours?
Personally, I feel some pressure straddling old and new. But I’ve gotten with the program, haven’t I? Embraced streaming, accepted disruption, I Topline for G-d sakes! So if I’m rolling with all the changes, it only makes sense that I roll with this one too. And that the industry #respect my value.
Alejandra tells me, “Resistance is mostly in your head, Shelly. Lean in!”
Believe me, I’m tipping over.
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