To oversimplify, there are two kinds of songwriters:
Singer-songwriters like Elton John, John Mayor, Bruce Springsteen; and
Nonperforming-songwriters like Hal David, Jimmy Webb, Johnny Mercer and Leiber & Stoller.
Sometimes there’s an overlap, but the song—music and lyrics—either comes from artists who write their own or writers, like me, who write for other people.
Nonperforming songwriters rely entirely on royalties from recorded music for revenue. We’ve managed to make it through the ups and downs of penny rates, file sharing and piracy while sharing from a music royalty pie that—adjusted for inflation—has DECREASED drastically since the outdated Copyright Law was enacted in 1909. A songwriter with a song selling a million CD’s or downloads makes about $34,125 in sales (mechanical) royalties if he has a co-writer and half his publishing. If he’s lucky enough to get a couple of those songs a year, he and his family might survive, but very few are that lucky. His only other hope for any real money is if the song becomes a radio hit and streaming revenues.
Streaming is awesome which is why it’s the fastest growing form of music consumption and predicted to be the future. But rates are SO low for songwriters that a song would have to be streamed over 853 MILLION times for each of the co-writers to earn that $34,125 from being on the platinum CD. That’s because by law, the songwriters split an unbelievable .00008 cents per stream. The non-performing songwriter simply cannot survive under the economics in this ecosystem.
So what might be the cultural implications resulting from the disappearance of the non-performing songwriter? Great bands and artists would still write and perform their own music. But where would the future great interpreters of brilliant copyrights come from? There would be no stars to step into the shoes of Elvis, Sinatra, Strait, Buble, Etta James, Ella, Diana Krall, because there’ll be no new Otis Blackwell, Jimmy Van Heusen, or Dean Dillon to write hit songs for them. No “Live Like You Were Dying,” or “I Hope You Dance.” Non-performing songwriters couldn’t make a living, because they don’t have access to additional artist income streams like touring, merchandise and sponsorships.
So if non-performing songwriters must survive on royalties alone, why are they so low, especially in the digital world? Outdated government constructs like the federal Consent Decrees and the Section 115 rate setting process make us sharecroppers, dependent on the will of Copyright Royalty Boards and often-prejudiced Rate Court judges. Until the songwriter copyright owner can negotiate for his work in a free marketplace in the same way the sound recording owner does, our profession can’t possibly attract the next generation of smart, gifted young people. In a country whose “brand” is free enterprise it’s ironic that the creators who bring so much pleasure to so many people are held in financial bondage by their own government.
There is a bill in Congress called the Songwriter’s Equity Act that begins to address this situation. It’s not a complete copyright overhaul, which is what our country and our culture really need, but it’s a start. This bill needs your support.
It would be a shame if the dream of writing words and music for people to enjoy across the miles and generations were to disappear in America for non-performing songwriters. And it would be a shame if a future great interpreter of new standards and classic songs—maybe the next Elvis —couldn’t evolve because there were no great new songs to sing. And it would be a shame if bad economics forced America to give up its place as the wellspring of the greatest music in the world.
Steve Bogard was formerly the longest serving President of the Board of Directors in the history of the Nashville Songwriter’s Association International, the world’s largest not-for-profit songwriter advocacy group. He is now Director of The Copyright Forum and an active Professional Songwriter. www.stevebogard.com