Recording Academy Urges Songwriter Activism to Ensure Music Industry's Future

Jerod Harris/WireImage for The Recording Academy 
Senior Director, Advocacy & Public Policy for The Recording Academy Todd Dupler, Producer Rodney Jerkins, Producer Om'Mas Keith and MoZella attend the town hall event held at Village Recorders on Sept. 14, 2017 in Los Angeles.

Streaming, which has made tech companies rich and benefited labels, has become an apt metaphor for songwriters' and artists' revenues going down the drain, according to a panel of experts pushing for political activism at the Recording Academy’s Thursday night (Sept. 14) advocacy town hall.

Girding members for battle on its Oct. 18 District Advocate Day, Academy leadership -- including producers Rodney Jerkins and Om’Mas Keith -- addressed more than 100 attendees at Village Studios in West Los Angeles, sharing horror stories of dwindling royalties and toothless copyright law.

“We’ve been in the trenches and it’s gnarly,” said songwriter MoZella, whose hits include Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball.” “People are not making money, and if we don’t stick our foot in the door now and say ‘Wait a minute,’ who knows what the landscape is going to look like five or 10 years from now.”

Jerkins, whose credits include hits for Sam Smith and Beyonc√©, shared figures from a royalty statement for Justin Bieber’s “As Long As You Love Me,” a top 10 hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 2012. By 2013, a 20 percent songwriter’s stake generated revenue of $146,000 through BMI, Jerkins said. The four-time Grammy winner broke down the figure to royalties of $53,000 from 347,827 radio spins and $7,065 from 1,509 exposures on Sirius XM.

The next set of numbers drew gasps. More than 38 million Pandora plays earned the songwriter just $278, while in excess of 34 million YouTube streams generated a mere $218. “If he owned 100 percent, on YouTube he would have made $1,100, and on Pandora $1,400. Those numbers are criminal,” Jerkins proclaimed.

MoZella envisioned a dire future in which “there won’t be an industry, because a terrestrial radio is slowly going to disappear [replaced by] online listening, and once that’s done there’s no way for songwriters to earn a living.”

The solution, according to the panel and moderator Todd Dupler, Recording Academy senior director of public policy, is to lobby for legislative change by connecting with elected officials, an effort that has slowly been producing results for creatives.

Lobbying efforts by the Academy and PROs resulted in saving the National Endowment of the Arts from extermination and even increased its funding by $2 million, said Dupler, who explained that three bills currently winding their way through Congress could have a big impact on professional music makers. While two are positive one, he warned, is onerous.

On the plus side, the AMP, or Allocation for Music Producers Act (H.R. 881), would amend the copyright act to facilitate producers, engineers and mixers to earn digital royalties through Sound Exchange. Also, the Songwriters Equity Act (H.R. 1283), which takes some of the “compulsion” out of the compulsory license, allowing for something resembling free market negotiation between PROs and music services is waiting to be re-introduced.

Meanwhile, the Music Transparency Act (H.R. 3350) is one to fight against, requiring as it does draconian data input to ensure songwriters the copyright protections that in all other arts are guaranteed as a basic right. “It would take away one of the only legal protections copyright owners have for their royalties,” Dupler said.

Recording Academy members are urged to text the word “register” to 52886 to sign up for National District Advocate Day, which connects constituents with their local lawmakers for in-person meetings “in your own backyard.” Registration ends Sept. 22. Dupler stressed the importance of personal narratives over political speak. “We’ll send you talking points and do all the work for you, but you won’t have to memorize policy. The important thing is to share your personal stories.”

In addition to Los Angeles, the Academy has held advocacy town halls in Dallas, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C., with one scheduled for Nashville on Sept. 25. While this is the fourth year the Recording Academy has undertaken a mass advocacy initiative – which has grown from 100 participants in 2014 to more than 2,000 last year – 2017 marks a rebranding from Grammys in My District to National District Advocate Day.

Dupler said social media now has more impact with politicians than letter writing. Texting “music” to the number will activate a social media communication. More details are available at www.grammy.com/advocacy.

Whether you’re a songwriter, an artist or a producer, the government has a lot of influence over how you’re getting compensated, Dupler stressed, explaining, “The last partial rewrite of the law took place in 1999, before digital music became a thing. The last comprehensive rewrite took place in the 1970s, in the 8-track era. That’s how out of date these laws are.”

Through it all, the labels have managed to retain their advantage. “Labels are making a 14:1 ratio to what songwriters make, so the labels are earning and we’re not, but that’s a whole ‘nother discussion,” MoZella said.

Keith, who has worked with Kanye West and Frank Ocean, emphasized a “new breed of artist who is not only the songwriter but also the sound recording owner. That’s going to be the future – the labels just marketing entities, essentially. I’ve been involved with records like that.”

While Duper and the other speakers emphasized “the long game,” songwriter Shelly Peiken offered what was perhaps the evening’s most practical suggestion during the Q&A: “Let’s cut to the chase: if Rodney goes to Barron Trump and gets him signed to a record deal, all this will change overnight.”