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Songwriters fighting to increase royalties from streaming services

Posted at 11:18 PM, May 21, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-22 14:50:01-04

When you think of “songwriters,” you may imagine they’re riding around in jets and limousines like the stars on the Billboard Music Awards. They’re not. Professional songwriters struggle to get songs on the charts. And when they do, while the artists who record them make millions, the songwriters are barely getting paid for their work.

For instance the song “The Climb” went quadruple platinum and became a number one hit for Miley Cyrus in 2009, making her a fortune. Jessi Alexander wrote the song but has earned just a fraction of what Cyrus made, and it's a fraction that continues to shrink. And because of massive changes in the way we listen to music, professional songwriters like Jessi Alexander and Michigan’s JT Harding are a dying breed.

“We just want what’s fair and we want future songwriters to be able to make a living.” Harding tells Action News after a performance at Nashville’s Hard Rock Café.

“In the digital era of music streaming,” Bart Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International says, “we’ve lost most of America’s songwriters, they just don't get paid.”

Herbison is in a fight in Washington right now before a panel of judges known as the Copyright Royalty Board. The fate of professional songwriters is in that board’s hands as they decide how much streaming services like Spotify or Pandora will pay songwriters for their music.

“35 million streams for a songwriter probably earns them 300 dollars,” Herbison says, “You can’t pay your bills. You can’t sustain an income on streaming revenues.”

The major source of income for songwriters now is a 9.1-cent per play royalty for radio station plays. But consumers are rapidly turning to streaming services, which pay a fraction of a penny per stream, a royalty the streaming industry is trying to get reduced even more.

“The first thing I address is, number one, why is this still so regulated? Why is every micro penny that I make as a songwriter controlled by federal government regulations?” asks Lee Thomas Miller, a professional songwriter with multiple hits by artists like Brad Paisley, Tim McGraw ad Chris Stapleton. Testifying before Congress Miller said “It is bad enough it’s so easy to steal the music today but a legal framework that allows songs to be streamed for nearly free will destroy the livelihood of the American songwriter if it is allowed to continue.”

After a recent show at Nashville’s famed Bluebird Café Miller told Action news, “Until somebody changes federal law we don’t have a hope of having any relief. And streaming has come along and it takes great advantage of this and it’s putting us out of business. Now is the time, this is the year. It is very, very critical that somebody makes a fundamental change in the way the royalties of the American songwriter are paid because its not fair and we are suffering and will continue to suffer.”

The Copyright Royalty Board will set the new streaming rates sometime in the fall.

In the meantime the organizations representing songwriters have started an online petition urging Google, Apple, Amazon, Spotify and Pandora to do the right thing voluntarily, stop litigating against songwriters and pay them a fair rate.

You can find that petition here.