A Songwriter's Call to Arms: Op-Ed

Harper Lee once wrote, “Remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird”… “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy... That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for the struggle we songwriters face today. Streaming companies are running the risk of killing today’s and tomorrow’s songbirds, and many of us don’t even know how much danger we’re in. This has got to change -- and it starts with songwriters getting educated.

In just my lifetime, I’ve danced to a 45s of Elvis and spun The Beatles. I’ve climbed the Stairway to Heaven on 8-track, bought U2’s CDs and downloaded The Rolling Stones. Today, we’re riding Beck’s Sea Change on Pandora’s streams.

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New technology is great, but how songs are delivered mean much more than what type of plastic you buy, they affect the royalties we songwriters receive. The fact that streaming is replacing the purchase of music is hugely important because streaming companies benefit from government regulations from the 1940s that prevent us from negotiating with them, so they’re able to keep performance royalties extremely low.

Under these regulations, the power to negotiate is out of our hands. We cannot say no to companies who want to use our music, and if we don’t like their rate, we must go to court. Although our publishers have our best efforts at heart and have the ability to direct license one off deals, like Sony/ATV Music Publishing (SATV) just announced with Pandora, these are short-term solutions for a long long-term problem. For years, streaming services have argued that they can’t pay songwriters more while they make fortunes off their stock options. The good news is that now the Department of Justice (DoJ) is paying attention and may soon change the game, but how, remains to be seen, and now DoJ is looking to us.

“Help! I need somebody”

I recently went to a songwriter town hall in Nashville hosted by the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA), who is on the front lines of this fight for songwriters in Washington -- but they need our help. As DoJ considers changes to these regulations, we have to make sure it knows that we are not in favor of some of the dramatic moves that the tech companies are pushing -- most notably what’s called “100 percent licensing”.

Recently, DoJ asked for comments from people like us about the idea of changing how co-written songs are licensed under the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees. The review of the decrees is great, but we should all be worried about the fact that the DOJ is considering turning music licensing on its head by requiring ASCAP and BMI to license 100 percent of every song, regardless of the percentage of the song that each PRO represents.  

This would mean that songwriters who collaborate with other writers could have their work licensed out from under them by one of their co-writer’s performance rights organizations (PRO). We all know that collaboration is fundamental to the songwriting process. Completely changing the way split work is licensed would affect how we get paid and whether we get paid at all -- because each songwriter’s terms with their PRO is different. Plus individual deals made between co-writers would be undermined if any writer’s PRO can license 100% of their co-written work.

Since each PRO handles royalties differently, this change could mean that writers may not want to work with writers from other PROs -- seriously limiting the creativity that comes from writers working together freely. What’s worse; it will reduce what little choice we songwriters have left. 

Today three-fourths of our profession is already regulated by the government and it’s time that we as a group get educated about how this happened. It’s unfair, and it’s up to us to tell Washington why. They’ll listen because songwriters are the ultimate small business entrepreneurs. We are independent contractors -- we pay our own health insurance and self employment tax, and we are honored to do it. We are thrilled to write another song!

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We have a calling, and people love what we do because we can sit in a room and stare down a blank sheet of paper and bleed ink, and we can find the lost chords on a guitar and make you feel something when the world has numbed you. However, I’m afraid that if something doesn’t change soon, the songwriter and the song will not survive.

We’re used to lending our words to others, now it’s time to speak for ourselves. The NMPA is holding another town hall next week in Los Angeles. I implore you all to attend and learn about how together we can end the government intervention that’s hurting us by writing the DoJ and telling them why more regulation, or changing the way co-written songs are licensed will hurt our small, but very important businesses. Remember, songbirds just want to make music, and it’s a sin to kill a songbird.

Tom Douglas is a Grammy, Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated songwriter based in Nashville and signed to Sony/ATV Music Publishing. He won CMA and ACM honors for Song of the Year for his composition “The House That Built Me” co-written with Allen Shamblin and has written hits for artists including Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Tim McGraw and Lady Antebellum. He was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2014.