How Spotify Songwriting Sessions Produced 1B Streams With Hits by 21 Savage, John Legend & More

21 Savage
Djeneba Aduayom

21 Savage photographed on March 25, 2019 at Wright Ranch in Malibu, Calif. 

"Our position is to make sure we're there to support [songwriters], but the real goal is to keep increasing the pie overall for the business," says Paris Kirk, head of songwriter relations.

In early 2019, Mr Hudson, the British songwriter, showed up to a recording studio owned by Spotify in the basement of the Sunset Marquis hotel in Los Angeles. "I got there super-early, putting flowers in a vase and making sure the right kind of mineral water was on the table and burning incense," he recalls. Soon producer Greg Wells was at the grand piano and Mr Hudson and producer Nasri were pacing, coffee in hand, searching for a big idea. John Legend showed up and within hours the quartet sketched out "Never Break," the closing track on his just-released album, Bigger Love.

Spotify, Mr Hudson says, "created that beautiful space for us to work" as one of the several songwriting initiatives the streaming giant has been pushing over the past few years. These have included multi-artist camps in Toronto, London, Atlanta and elsewhere supported with playlists on the platform; hundreds of recently revealed songwriter pages; and #SongwriterSaturday Q&As with artists beginning with Julia Michaels last month. 21 Savage's "a lot" and "Monster," Dua Lipa's "Hallucinate" and The Carters' "Friends" have come out of Spotify sessions. "I'm hugely appreciative of what they do," Mr Hudson adds.

Paris Kirk, the company's head of songwriter relations, says his team represents "direct support for songwriters and producers and making sure they had a voice in the platform." He adds: "It's super-important to be hands-on with the creators and make sure they know there are faces behind the company and people that care about the creation of the music."

But Spotify's songwriter support contains a contradiction: The company, along with Pandora, Google and Amazon, has spent years opposing royalty-rate hikes for streaming services. (Apple Music, conspicuously, has not joined this opposition.) Last year, the tech companies filed an appeal with the Copyright Royalty Board to overturn its 2018 decision, which raised the rate from 10.5% to 15.1% through 2022. Both sides are now waiting for a decision.

"Each of these gestures that Spotify does on behalf of songwriters are good things -- but when taken in context with the bigger picture, regarding paying songwriters, they become nothing more than cheap gimmicks," says David Israelite, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers' Association. "They are in court trying to slash what they pay all songwriters by one-third. When you compare that to things like songwriter camps, it becomes so hollow."

Spotify's opposing messages regarding songwriters puts its executives in a tricky position. On one hand, songs created during Spotify-organized writing and producing sessions recently hit 1 billion streams; on the other, in an open letter last year, dozens of top songwriters, including Babyface, Greg Kurstin and Tricky Stewart said the service "used us and tried to divide us."

Kirk defends his employer, noting the often-cited argument that 70% of all revenue goes to rights holders.

"Our position is to make sure we're there to support [songwriters], but the real goal is to keep increasing the pie overall for the business," he says. "We want to keep growing the business, but growing the business takes people, it takes money."

Songwriter camps have been going on for years, run by labels, publishers and composer societies like ASCAP and BMI: Beyonce, Rihanna, Kanye West and others have used variations on them to make their own songs and albums. But Spotify's sessions have been different, says songwriter and producer DJ Dahi, because "the environment was really about creativity -- there wasn't a goal in mind, 'you're trying to make this song for this person.'" Kirk’s team puts the sessions together based on its relationships with established publishers and songwriters; it’s more of a workshop among high-level industry players than a way of discovering unknowns.

To co-write 21 Savage's 2018 hit "a lot" at a Spotify-run camp two years ago in L.A., he adds, "You didn't feel any anxiety, you didn't feel any type of pressure, you just were in a room with creatives and everybody's sharing ideas, there's no competitive nature." During those sessions, A&R execs were on hand to deliver work in progress to Savage himself for real-time feedback.

Dahi defends Spotify against its Copyright Royalty Board critics. "Streaming has saved a lot of the industry, and it's made tons and tons of money that it didn't have before," he says, then criticizes the major music companies for not sharing more revenue with its artists. "Record labels really dictate all the splits of everything. They have all the market shares and a lot of the masters of records."

Mr Hudson, who has worked with Jay-Z, Future, Janelle Monae and Miley Cyrus, has conflicted loyalties on the issue. He signed the songwriters' open letter to Spotify last year, demanding that the service drop its appeal of the CRB royalty-rate increase, but he's also an enthusiastic supporter of Spotify's songwriting initiatives.

"All platforms, some perhaps more than Spotify, need to open the purse a little bit for songwriters," he says. "I'm a huge fan of Spotify, but when the songwriting community turns around and says, 'You know what?,' it's like turning to your boss and saying, 'I need a raise.' If you don't put fertilizer on the field, your crops don't grow."

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