Growing up, Sony Music Publishing songwriter Kyle Clark thought that if he could score a gold record, “you’ve made it,” he says. He recently accomplished this goal as a co-writer on Lily Rose’s “Villain,” which reached RIAA gold status for earning the equivalent of 500,000 units through sales and streams.
But after his moment of celebration, Clark was faced with the reality of working as a songwriter within a streaming-based economic model.
“It’s a great achievement, but it doesn’t pay the bills,” he says. “As a songwriter, it’s like, ‘I have to get another one and another one.’”
During June’s National Music Publishers’ Association annual meeting, NMPA president/CEO David Israelite offered new data that highlighted how low songwriters come in the compensation pecking order. In 2021, 47 different music streaming services generated nearly $9.8 billion in revenue, with over 96% of that revenue coming from five companies: Apple, Amazon, Google, Pandora and Spotify. Of that, only $1.3 billion (13.4% of the revenue pool) went to songwriters, while record labels earned $5.7 billion (58.6% of the revenue pool), which includes the portion distributed to artists.
For years, artists who are also songwriters have noticed the disparity between the streaming incomes that flow to acts for their recordings and to songwriters for their compositions. Singer-songwriter Austin Burke, whose self-released song “Whole Lot in Love” has been streamed more than 64 million times on Spotify, witnessed the struggles his colleagues who were trying to make it solely as songwriters faced without access to the other revenue streams he had as an artist.
“I’ve seen really close friends work three jobs on top of their publishing deals because they can’t make money,” says Burke, who has a publishing deal with Warner Chappell Music as a songwriter. “Meanwhile, I’ve been able to buy a house and a car and kind of live my life because of the checks I’ve gotten as an artist. I had the ability to see both sides and I knew something needs to change.”
To that end, some Nashville artists, including Clark and Burke, are doing what they can to effect change. Beginning with his current single “Take My Life,” Burke is giving 15% of his artist royalties from master recordings to the songwriters on his albums. By doing so, he says he’s paid out “thousands” to those songwriters to date.
“I give my business manager 5% and my manager and booking agents get 10%. I value songwriters over those [services],” Burke says. “That’s just the number that felt right for me. I don’t expect that number from other people. My goal is to start a conversation.”
Jamie Kenney and Emma Lynn White, Burke’s co-writers on “Take My Life,” are grateful. “We create art because we love it,” Kenney told Billboard via a statement, similar to a statement also given to Forbes. “But that said, the nature of streaming in recent years has made it a much more difficult prospect for many to do it for a living. So for someone like Austin to make the effort to do this for us is innovative and shows an appreciation for the writers who have given a piece of their souls and talents to invest in his artistry.”
White also told Billboard via a statement, “I’ve been writing songs since I was 15 and am going on my 11th year in Nashville. Austin including us in the master royalties for ‘Take My Life’ means everything. I hope this paves the way for other artists to do the same for their co-writers.” White further told Billboard, “So incredibly thankful to be apart of this song with Austin, who is showing his support for all songwriters by giving them a piece of the master royalties. In a world where it feels like songwriters sometimes go unnoticed, he is paving the way to change that.”
In addition to his work as a songwriter, Clark releases his own music as an artist, including “Hope It’s Hot Out,” which debuted at No. 10 on Billboard’s Country Digital Song Sales chart in June. And like Burke, Clark has also committed to giving 15% of his artist royalties from his master recordings to songwriters who contribute to his albums. Meanwhile, Troy Cartwright, a now-unsigned artist who previously recorded for Warner Music Nashville, estimates he gives around 10% of his artist royalties per songwriter, on average.
“Songwriters don’t have the ability to negotiate their compensation for recorded music the way you do in sync licensing,” Cartwright says. “As an independent artist, I was in a position to do something about it. I want the creators to be valued and giving a piece of the masters to songwriters felt like the most obvious way to do that.”
While not donating royalties, Universal Music Group Nashville artist Kip Moore and unsigned artist Adam Sanders have offered bonuses to songwriters on their albums, with Sanders setting aside 10% of the net streaming proceeds he receives for that purpose.
Extending a helping hand didn’t use to be necessary. Prior to the rise of downloads and now streaming, songwriters could count on receiving mechanical royalties for every album unit sold, regardless of whether their song became a radio single. In today’s streaming economy, that’s far from the case.
“When you are writing with a [self-releasing] artist or even a signed artist, unless the song goes to radio, it’s hard to make much money on it,” Cartwright says. “But I think where it starts to feel a little unfair is when you have a song getting millions of streams and you’re not making a whole lot [of money].”
During the NMPA annual meeting, Israelite broke down how much the top digital service providers paid songwriters per 1 million streams. Amazon’s paid subscription service paid out $2,285, Apple’s paid subscription service paid out $1,916 and Spotify’s full subscription service paid $1,160, while Spotify’s free, ad-supported service paid $745. Israelite noted that those numbers do not take into account that most songs are written by more than one songwriter, so each writer on a song earning 1 million streams would receive a percentage of that income. (On July 1, the Copyright Royalty Board raised the rate streaming services will pay to songwriters and publishers from 10.5% to 15.1%, reaffirming the CRB’s 2018 decision, which had been protested by DSPs.)
Songwriters are further getting squeezed by some artists and managers who demand they give up a percentage of their publishing on songs in order to get a superstar to record them. To combat this, songwriters and their managers have turned to an array of creative options to help bring in monies, including holding fees, and even kill fees if a song isn’t promoted to radio. Additionally, a group of songwriters, including hitmakers Ross Golan, Justin Tranter and Emily Warren, launched The Pact in 2021 with the goal of halting the practice of giving publishing or songwriting credit to people (including artists and managers) who did not meaningfully contribute to the composition of a song.
“I really feel for all the young writers coming up,” Clark says. “It’s very rare that in the first year of a writer being signed to a publishing deal that they get a radio single. It can be three, four years down the road before a song you wrote gets cut and taken to radio. By that point, your deal could be over, or maybe they let you go. It’s tough.”
While making the decision to donate a percentage of earnings to writers on his albums is certainly altruistic, Clark also realizes it can serve as an incentive for established songwriters to contribute to relatively unknown indie artist’s albums.
“If you’re not going to radio, then why would these hit songwriters want to be part of the project?” he says. “I know they want to get the Jason Aldean cut or the Blake Shelton cut. But at the end of the day, I want them to be excited if I want to take a shot at recording one of their songs. I want them to be fired up and feel like they are part of it.”
Several of these artists say their dedication to giving back to songwriters on their albums would be a key focus if they sign with a record label. This includes Burke, who recently performed a showcase for several Nashville labels and says he would advocate for a higher artist royalty rate so he can continue to give a percentage to songwriters. “If a label signs me, and it is a true partnership, they’re gonna have to understand where I stand on this and offer me a deal that makes sense with this in mind,” he says. “I want to make this a standardized thing. I’m gonna do this until there’s a change.”
Clark foresees a day when signed artists or labels give songwriters percentage points on a record, just as they do producers (whose points come out of the artist’s royalties).
“I think at some point they’re gonna have to give that percentage as well to writers, to stay competitive,” he says. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen this year, or in five years, but I think at some point, if every indie artist is giving some of the master [royalties] to writers, you might see signed artists or labels do it to stay competitive. I could see it going that way.”
UPDATE: Hit songwriter Jesse Frasure also spoke out about the issue of songwriter compensation in an Instagram post on July 13, stating, “Helpful hint for our creative community colleagues that reach out to songwriters for collaborations…terms like ‘killing it at streaming’ or ‘TikTok viral’ translate to nearly zero financial opportunities for songwriters 98% of the time…try formulating a plan on the front end to offer writer fees, points on master or some other meaningful compensation so that the songwriting community is incentivized to help an artist without a current radio plan. The gap between how artists and labels make money versus songwriters is widening rapidly. Let’s educate one another about the realities and struggles of each of our own worlds under the umbrella of the music industry.”