By Dwight Brown
It’s that time of year when you sit back and remember the reasons why you should be thankful.
For songwriters the top of the list is often the ability to write good songs, share them with appreciative fans and collect songwriting royalties from around the world.
This November, as you count your blessings, the world of songwriting and publishing continues to turn…
Ghostwriters haunt rap music
When Meek Mill accused TuneCore alumnus Drake of not writing his own lyrics, the “Hotline Bling” rapper shut him down. Their Twitter tussle led to Forbes.com investigating the hush-hush side of the hip-hop world where some of the biggest and wealthiest rappers in the game get a hand with their rhymes. Dr. Dre and Sean “Puffy Daddy” Combs have worked with talented invisible scribes. In fact, in the Combs classic rap “Bad Boy For Life,” Combs brags, “Don’t worry if I write rhymes, I write checks (Ha).” The D.O.C. and Eminem have left their words on others’ tracks—without a trace. And ghostwriters know full well which artists don’t want, need or use their services: Kendrick Lamar and Jay Z (another TuneCore veteran) are among those that are said to have shunned ghost writers entirely.
Forbes reports that ghostwriters are typically paid between $10,000 and $20,000 upfront for their anonymous contributions. Co-writers, on the other hand, average $50,000 and they have a very enviable fringe benefit: royalty payments that can last for years.
Ghostwriter Tracy Horton recognizes the importance of royalties. “For the first few major projects, I was so happy to be on them that I accepted it as paying my dues—I wasn’t looking for anything,” recalls Horton. After he officially wrote five songs for Supernova, the 2001 solo album of TLC’s Lisa ‘Left-Eye’ Lopez, he saw the light. “Now I know the value of publishing.”
Ghostwriting = one paycheck.
Writing with a credit = a larger check and a royalty stream.
The National Music Publishers Association speaks out
David Israelite, Pres/CEO of the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) and a tireless fighter for publishers and songwriters, has his work cut out for him. In a candid interview on allaccess.com he tackles the elephant in the room: monetization in the digital age. He breaks it down to the basics, stating that “10 years ago, everybody was afraid of theft and piracy. Now our focus has almost entirely shifted to ‘How do we monetize legal sites that are creating a tremendous amount of value?’ “
A quick roundup of the NMPA positions on three key issues outlined in the article:
- “Fair Pay for Fair Play” Act – They support this initiative.
- Labels and publishers teaming to maximize profits – They’re for it.
- Freemium VS Premium streaming services – They prefer Premium, but feel it should be up to the artist.
“I feel we are making progress,” said Israelite, “There is a lot of value in music; we just want to be paid fairly. Let the free market decide, as in every other intellectual property sold on the Internet.”
Can co-writers get paid fairly without Fractional Licensing?
As initially reported by Billboard, a number of sources report that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has sent a letter to ASCAP and BMI telling them that on “split works” — songs written by multiple writers — any writer or rights holder can issue a license for 100% of the song. In other words, the long-established industry practice of each writer or publisher approving their particular share of a song in order to grant a license — also known as “fractional licensing” — may no longer be allowed.
This means that for songs written by more than one writer, if one writer has registered with BMI and the co-writer has registered with ASCAP, BMI would have the right to license on behalf of itself AND the ASCAP writer
Executives from publishing companies have concerns: Licensees (e.g. streaming services) may pay lower royalty rates when paying one PRO versus several. Songwriters may collect less money if one PRO collects for everybody. Competition among PROs may be stifled. One PRO could take all the marbles. PROs are not set up to pay all rights holders, only their own songwriter members
Why should songwriters care?
93 of the top 100 songs last year had co-writers.
68 of those songs were registered with more than one PRO.
The DoJ solicited feedback from interested parties and should make a decision in the near future. Here’s one artist’s Op-ed.
Unpaid Royalties. Whose money is it anyway?
Don’t mess with the royalties owed to musician and music industry critic David Lowery (founder of alternative rock band Camper Van Beethoven and co-founder of rock band Cracker). He’ll call you out. And, as reported by Hypebot, that’s precisely what he did when he wrote a letter to the Attorney General of New York, The Honorable Eric T. Schneiderman, focusing on how “Spotify routinely fails to pay songwriter royalties for songwriters who Spotify has failed to locate – but whose songs they use anyway,.
Lowery continues, “I personally have estimated that Spotify is using over 150 songs I wrote or co-wrote … [I] am demanding an explanation from Spotify.” There is a precedent for getting unclaimed royalties to the rightful artists: in 2004, State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer announced a deal with the nation’s top recording companies that returned nearly $50 million in unclaimed royalties to thousands of performers. As part of the agreement, those recording companies, among other concessions, listed the names of artists and writers who were owed royalty payments on company websites. Not a bad idea.
Happy Birthday (To You). Now pay the royalty!
Did you ever wonder why people sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” instead of “Happy Birthday (To You)” in films and on television shows? It’s because you had to pay a sync fee for “Happy Birthday (To You)” to the publisher, while “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” is in the public domain where no license is necessary. This may no longer be the case thanks to documentary filmmaker Jennifer Nelson. She was making a film about the song “Happy Birthday” and Warner/Chappell insisted that she pay a $1,500 license fee to use the composition. Nelson did not agree; instead she filed a putative class action case against the publisher in 2013. In October 2015, a federal judge ruled Warner/Chappell’s copyright claim was invalid, giving summary judgment to the plaintiffs. However, that was only round one.
In a major twist, a US charity, Association for Childhood Education International, filed a motion to intervene in the case. ACEI’s lawyers claim that the organization had been receiving one-third of all revenues generated from “Happy Birthday (To You)” for over 20 years, a royalty stream it inherited from the song’s original co-writers, sisters Patty and Jessica Hill, who wrote the ditty in 1922. Patty Hill was both a founding member and ‘active participant’ in ACEI. The motion hasn’t been ruled on yet. But if you want to sing Happy Birthday on network TV, it could still cost you!
If you’re interested in claiming your royalties, TuneCore’s Music Publishing Administration is here to help.
- Global Music Rights, ASCAP, BMI and Pandora on hot seat at CMJ.
- ASCAP reveals its percentage share of over 10m songs online.
- BMI Foundation offers songwriter scholarship. Apply by 2.15.16.
- ASCAP EXPO Early Bird Pricing During November. Low price. Special deals.
- NMPA Sued by Wolfgang’s Vault for Defamation from a NMPA Press Release.