For decades, publishing royalties were largely divided between mechanical rights (derived from physical album sales) and performance rights (from public performances and radio/TV broadcasts). Both of those income streams are becoming more convoluted in the digital era. While mechanical and performance royalties respectively amount to $631.4 million and $2.8 billion in the United States annually, Billboard estimates, that revenue comes from more sources than ever.
Furthermore, unlike royalties paid to master recording rights holders, where there is only a single owner, publishing rights can be held by multiple parties who contribute to a song in different ways and claim different fractions of the composition. Such “splits” make tracking revenue even more complex. And as the number of credits on songs grows ever higher (and more unwieldy), that data is all the more crucial in issuing proper payouts.
In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity. A cottage industry of businesses unearthing songwriters’ royalties has sprung up, including rights-management startups like Songtrust and STEM that collect revenue for independent creators. At the same time, Session (formerly Auddly) and Create Music Group’s SPLITS app are looking to simplify the process of establishing reliable data on the contributions of different creators when songs are written, avoiding potential conflicts down the line. The intent is to get songwriters paid and avoid “black box” money -- royalties that can’t be correctly identified or matched to publishers. That is, so long as the creators use them. “If songwriters actually get in front of it,” says Songtrust global head of business development Molly Neuman, “this black box eventually might not exist.” -- COLIN STUTZ
Are songwriters the new rock stars?
Reality TV stars, actually. Seven years ago, the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart failed to convince network executives that songwriters could anchor a music talent competition. Even after he joined up with The Voice executive producer Audrey Morrissey in 2014, NBC asked if there were enough songwriters out there. “Everyone was used to the fact that songs just appear and they’re hits,” says Stewart.
Then NBC put out a casting call -- and thousands of applications poured in. Early last year, the network finally greenlighted a pilot for Songland, which puts four aspiring songwriters in front of a panel of producers -- OneRepublic frontman Ryan Tedder, Rihanna co-writer Ester Dean and country hitmaker Shane McAnally -- and a chart-topping guest artist, like John Legend or Meghan Trainor. Contestants perform their songs, the artist chooses three for a potential single, the writer works with one of the producers to fine-tune it, and the artist records and releases the winning song. “People are super intrigued about stories and where they come from,” says McAnally.
By the time Songland gained traction at NBC, songwriters turned artists like Julia Michaels and Charlie Puth had risen to fame. Now authenticity rules in pop, and Dean thinks Songland’s focus on original material will more likely produce stars than a vocal competition where contestants perform covers. “When these songwriters sing and are living in their truth, you’re seeing a true artist,” she says. (BMG will distribute recordings and administer publishing for the songs created on the show.)
Tedder, who’s also a producer on Songland, believes the show’s spotlight on creators could even influence industry debates about royalties and payments. “This show attaches faces to songwriters,” he says. “That makes it that much harder to ignore [us] when it comes to how much we’re compensated.” Songland’s May 28 premiere drew 5.5 million viewers (according to Nielsen), and with nine episodes to go, Stewart says Songland could be a new tipping point for songwriters emerging as bona fide stars. As for McAnally, he’s grateful for one more basic achievement: “My mom finally knows what I do.” -- TAYLOR WEATHERBY