About 300 members of the the Nashville songwriting community turned out Wednesday afternoon for a town hall meeting to discuss Spotify and other streaming services' appeals of the Copyright Royalty Board's recent rate increase for publishers and songwriters. Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) and National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) hosted the event at 3rd & Lindsley with NSAI executive director Bart Herbison, NMPA president and CEO David Israelite and songwriter Steve Bogard each addressing the audience.
In January 2018, the CRB determined songwriters and publishers should get annual increases in the headline rate from 10.5% to 15.1% by year 2022. That determination was finalized in February this year, but Spotify -- along with Google, Pandora and Amazon -- appealed that ruling, leaving the future of songwriters' long-demanded pay raise uncertain. According to Herbison, Spotify and Amazon specifically were the ringleaders of the appeal. Meanwhile, he noted that Apple Music hadn't appealed the rate increase and said songwriters are grateful for that.
Spotify, Amazon, Google and Pandora were invited to attend the discussion but four empty chairs with each company's logo showed their absence.
Following a town hall Q&A discussion, several songwriters shared with Billboard their thoughts regarding Spotify -- and streaming in general -- as they seek what they consider to be fair payment.
"Songwriting is a real job, it's very hard," said songwriter JT Harding (Blake Shelton's "Sangria," Dierks Bentley's "Different For Girls"). "Spotify does not want to pay songwriters. They make billions of dollars off the music that we all write and they're not paying for it."
He continued, "A world without music, you don't even want to imagine. Football teams run out to music. There are songs in movies. 'Happy Birthday' somebody wrote. I expect to get paid just like everyone should get paid for working hard. We just want what's fair."
During the town hall, Bogard spoke of a struggling songwriter who came to him with thoughts of committing suicide and another who had to put his house up for sale because he could no longer afford the payments. These personal stories struck a chord with several people in attendance including Bobby Hammrick, who said Bogard brought a human element to the discussion. While he has had cuts with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, as well as songs placed on the Nashville soundtrack, Hammrick said he still struggles making money from his music.
"As a newer songwriter with the future of where the income streams are from the digital sources, it creates a really uncertain environment where I question whether I can do it at all. I supplement my income in many other ways and that makes for a really hard life," he confessed. "I lost my publishing deal four months ago and I sold most of my instruments. I paired it down to the essentials. It's a challenging time for me personally and the industry as a whole."
Corey Crowder (Chris Young's "I'm Comin' Over," "Think of You") voiced several songwriters' viewpoint, adding, "This is our living. Songs are all we have. We just want to be paid fairly. I don't think we're asking for a lot. The songwriters aren't coming in a spirit of hate, we want to be compensated fairly like everyone else," Crowder stressed. "It's sad that our town is getting harder and harder to survive in. We want to make that better for the next generation [of songwriters]. As someone who has family that I support with songs and as our format shifts away from actual purchases and towards more streams, it's a little disheartening to think about what that's going to do to our industry."
Sarah Buxton (Florida Georgia Line's "Sun Daze," Chris Lane "Fix") said she had a good relationship with Spotify, but "what we have been getting paid is a tiny sliver of a fraction of nothing." She continued, "This was more about changing the way that we get paid and having it be a fair market rate.... Everyone needs to have this be a personal matter for them. It's not just something for other people to solve. It can only really happen if we all band together and understand and really stand up for what we're worth."
Pleased with the town hall meeting turnout, Herbison, Israelite and Bogard told Billboard that the creative community has been activated in ways they have never seen before.
"Maybe it's because they've gotten a taste of success and what it means in their power to do that. They came together and passed the [Music Modernization Act]. They got a rate increase after supporting that trial," Israelite noted. "Now when you cross them like this, it's a very different reaction than I think it used to be. We had a packed house with people that are angry and looking to do something."
Herbison furthered that Wednesday's town hall was to explain what the appeal meant to songwriters and to remind everybody that while they've won some battles, the war is ongoing. "The songwriter evolved and they're not going to lay down and let people roll over them. You're going to hear their voices. We're not going to stop. This is a marathon, not a sprint," Herbison added.
A similar town hall meeting is scheduled to take place in Los Angeles on May 13 where the streaming platforms will once again be invited. Herbison said he would like to send Spotify CEO Daniel EK a message: "Get his ass to the next town hall meeting in Los Angeles and sit down and feel what that crowd feels and then tell us you support the songwriters."
"I think there's a reason they didn't show up today," Israelite added. "When you see their blog and break it down, what they've said is indefensible. You can't really argue it. To not show up is understandable because they really don't have a defense. It was unwise to try to trick the songwriters with these kind of talking points. They should probably be straight up and say, 'We don't want to pay you as much as the court thinks we should and we're going to fight it.' That would be honest."