Over the weekend, an anonymous Instagram account called The Pact appeared, offering brief, illustrated explanations to basic questions about the music industry: How does an artist make money? (Touring, merch and more.) How does a songwriter make money? (Publishing.) How much money does a songwriter make from streaming? (Not a lot, compared to artists and labels.) On March 31, members of The Pact started to reveal themselves — and their mission.
Songwriters including Emily Warren, Justin Tranter, Ross Golan, Tayla Parx, Victoria Monét, Savan Kotecha, Joel Little and others signed an open letter under The Pact stating that those who sign it vow to stop giving publishing or songwriting credit to anyone (from artists to managers) who did not change the composition without a “reasonably equivalent/meaningful exchange.”
“The Pact is about songwriters honoring the value of their copyrights, about making sure songwriters protect their assets,” says Golan, who hosts the podcast And the Writer Is… and is involved in a variety of songwriter advocacy efforts. Even if a song becomes a huge hit and receives millions of streams, he continues, individual songwriters aren’t necessarily earning huge paychecks. “And you’re going to have an artist take some of that? Those are superstar artists. What do they need $3,000 for? It’s either totally blind to what the situation is, or it’s egregious.”
Warren says that, in the last year, asks from artists and managers for writers to give up publishing shares have gotten “particularly aggressive”; her manager, Zach Gurka of Ground Up Management, says “there’s literally an expectation because it’s so normalized: ‘My artist is massive, give 15% or 20% [of publishing] or I’m going to find another song.’”
The Pact was created to nullify that threat. “Rather than us fighting this battle on an island, if we all join together and have each others’ backs, we could finally stop this across the board,” Warren says. “If every songwriter has signed on, then we’ll have a lot of negotiating power.”
To better understand what’s at stake: If a songwriter wrote an album track for a top-charting artist that paid 9.1 cents — the statutory rate since March 2009 — and the album sold 1 million units, even giving up 20% would earn that writer $72.8k. Alternatively, if that songwriter chooses to keep 100% and place that same song on a lesser-known artists’ album that sells 20,000 units, that would only translate to $1,820.
While the songwriters who have signed the open letter so far have worked with chart-topping artists including Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and others, The Pact is not naming the artists and managers who have asked them to give up publishing. “I’m nervous about stupid people on the internet turning this into some sort of who’s-who of drama,” Tranter says. “There are so many artists who I have written with in the room and they are f—ing amazing.”
Besides, Warren notes, managers are often the ones making the demands. “A lot of artists for the most part are unaware of this is happening on their behalf,” she says. “Maybe [they] know they’re getting publishing, but they likely don’t know what a lot of these conversations are like.”
Tranter adds that joining The Pact was less about the founders changing their own circumstances —“I am one of the few people that, through all of the f—ing obstacles this industry creates, found my way to the golden ticket — and more about empowering up-and-coming songwriters. “If this impacts the industry the way I know it’s going to,” Tranter says, “then the next generation of songwriters won’t have that fear in them that they have to say yes to [unfair splits] because they’re so afraid they’re not going to get another opportunity.”
Anyone in the industry can sign The Pact, though Gurka cautions non-songwriters against signing as a show of “aesthetic support” without the commitment of their clients or roster, too. And while the group hopes to get the support of labels and publishers and other organizations, they’re paying particularly close attention to how managers and artists respond. “There’s a really beautiful moment right now where artists and managers have a chance to come out and say, ‘We’ve done wrong in the past and starting now we’re going to correct this,’” Warren says. “What would be really powerful is people retroactively going back and giving publishing to people they wrongly took it from. That’s a pipe dream of mine.”
Warren says some of the music professionals she’s spoken to about The Pact have raised concerns that artists will, in response, increasingly want to make minor changes to a song to justify getting a credit and publishing percentage, which is where the letter’s language around a “reasonably equivalent/meaningful exchange” comes in. “If it’s so important to have songwriting credits, you can still trade” points on a master recording, for instance, Warren says. “What we’re trying to end is the world where there’s bullying or threats.”
In addition to the open letter, The Pact’s Instagram account and website will serve as a resource for writers who are being pressured and don’t know where to turn, Warren says, and “a platform to share that correspondence, which would obviously be a way worse way for people to find out that an artist doesn’t write their own songs.”
The Pact is hoping the industry’s response will mirror the conversations they’ve had with artist camps they’re close with. Tranter says the general reaction he’s received has been positive: “‘100% it’s time for a change, this makes perfect sense and let’s move forward.’”
Members also hope their work will spark wider dialogue and education about how songwriters make money and the particular challenge they face in their industry. “This is about magnifying the injustices that have been done to songwriters while also educating songwriters about their assets, and that creates a community that becomes healthier,” Golan says.
Tranter also hopes to see improvement surrounding inequities in streaming but acknowledges it’s a hefty undertaking (last August, the Copyright Royalty Board’s proposed 44% increase for publisher and songwriter streaming royalty rates was vacated by an appeals court, though that decision has since been appealed and submissions from publishers and DSPs for the re-litigation of rates were recently filed). “What The Pact is addressing is not the biggest issue in the world, and it’s not even close to the biggest issue in our business, but it is the only piece that we can control right now, so it has to be the first step,” Tranter says. “We can at least control this one thing and start a real conversation so that the next generation of songwriters feels more respected — but what’s equally important as financial respect is emotional respect.”
Adds Warren: “You’re not alone anymore. You have this group that’s listening and ready to help and ready to share whatever’s happening to you with everyone.”