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Inside Track: Is This the ’Age of the Songwriter’?

The Artist's Rights Symposium hosted conversations about championing creators, addressing metadata inaccuracies and rate setting around the world.

Music business lawyers, songwriters, and other professionals gathered at the University of Georgia in Athens for the Artist Rights’ Symposium on Nov. 15. Hosted by senior lecturer, songwriter and member of band Cracker, Dr. David Lowery, the day-long conference discussed ways for the music industry to better champion songwriters, to address the problem of metadata inaccuracies, and to explain the differences in rate setting across different countries.

The series of panels was bisected by a lunch and fireside chat with Hipgnosis CEO and founder Merck Mercuriadis, moderated by attorney Chris Castle, who explained why he feels the industry is in the “age of the songwriter.” “There has been a massive paradigm shift,” he said. “Forty years ago, the power was in the artist brand,” but now, most songs that top the Billboard charts are written by a larger number of songwriters than ever, meaning the demand has never been higher for good hitmakers. “But songwriters have to have a place at the negotiating table now,” he said, citing that in the United States, rates for mechanicals are set by the government’s Copyright Royalty Board, barring “free market” negotiations. “Let’s face it, [the government controlling rates] is insulting to songwriters.”

Mercuriadis said he’s a supporter of the recent Phonorecords IV settlement, which set the U.S. mechanical streaming rates for 2023-2027, and was formed by the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA), the Digital Media Rights (DiMA) and Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) banding together earlier this fall for “one main reason:” he believes it will provide the industry with stability for the next five year period. This would contrast the current five-year period (2018-2022), Phonorecords III, in which publishers, rights holders and songwriters have not had a clear idea of what rate they would be paid due to a lengthy appeals process that has tied up royalties.

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He detailed an ambitious hope for the future, to “get out of the CRB in the next five years and into the free market.” Mercuriadis’ vision, he said, was inspired by the screenwriters guild — The Writers Guild of America — which has been able to secure fair compensation for those who create the scripts the industry is reliant on through advocation, unionization and bargaining with its titans of industry. Mercuriadis has certainly espoused his vision for a coalition of songwriters in the past and stood by that vision during his chat at the symposium, but he did not reveal many new details of his plans to build it.

“I have tremendous faith,” he said of it happening, despite the challenges and legal roadblocks he faces to achieve this scenario, adding that artists could be a major potential ally to songwriters getting what he thinks of as fair opportunities. As a leader in the catalog acquisition business, Hipgnosis has financial interests that overlap with songwriters regarding compensation rates.

Some panelists who flew in from Europe and South America for the event broadened the discussion beyond the U.S. borders. Crispin Hunt, the former chair of the U.K.’s Ivors Academy, explained how whatever rates are set in the U.S. often act as a benchmark for other countries during their respective negotiations with the same services. Also during the panel, Hunt added that he felt this was “an incredibly critical moment for songwriters,” as traditional offline broadcast income continues to fall and is replaced more with each coming year by digital.

Samantha Schilling of Songtradr brought her perspective from working in Brazil and with a mostly Latin American music business. She pointed out the differing standards that separate her business with that of the U.S. and how the two regions might learn from each other. For example, she said, while commonplace in the U.S., some Latin American countries prohibit work for hire agreements for songs written for TV/film. She said this helps songwriters maintain ownership and secure royalties on the backend. “That was put in place to protect songwriters,” Schilling noted. “Netflix tried to change it… but we were able to fight for songwriters to get that backend income.” In the U.S., some streaming video on demand (SVOD) companies are rumored to be asking songwriters to give up their backend royalties, a crucial component of income for those working at the intersection of music and visual media.

The day ended off with a discussion of the importance of metadata — which is often incomplete or incorrect, causing misallocation of songwriters’ royalties — and registering properly with the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) to collect due compensation. Led by Abby North (North Music Group), Erin McAnally (Artists Rights Alliance), Helienne Lindvall (European Composer and Songwriter Alliance, Ivors Academy) and Melanie Santa Rosa (Word Collections, The MLC), the conversation harkened back to Hunt’s earlier point about the growing importance of digital income streams, which according to CISAC’s 2021 annual report, comprises of $3.62 billion to the worldwide music business, and how the industry can clean up its rocky start to collecting from these sources.