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Big labels or Google - who is the songwriters' worst enemy?

Digital rights raise artists' hackles

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Interview Tired of being ignored by industry lobby groups, artists are now getting feisty about creators' digital rights.

In the UK, the Featured Artists Coalition wants to take digital rights away from the nerds. In the US last year, Arts and Labs launched to counter big record labels and anti-copyright technology companies. A&L has the support of the Songwriters Guild of America (SGA). Guild President Rick Carnes is a tireless advocate of US songwriters and lives in Nashville, the songwriting capital of the world.

Who do you view as songwriters' greatest commercial opponents?

The major record labels are our biggest "commercial" opponents. They have wreaked havoc on the songwriting community by forcing controlled composition clauses into their artists' recording contracts. After them it would be all those companies out there that want to use our songs to sell something else (such as advertisers) and not pay us a dime.

Any time you go on a website offering free music that it has no license to use and it is selling your site visit to advertisers, you are looking at one of the "greatest commercial opponents of songwriters". I wish I could offer you a list but it would be too long to type in one sitting. Besides, didn’t Richard Nixon get in trouble for having an enemies list?

I hear a lot of talk from Google and the big online companies about their “partnerships” with the “music industry”. I find more often than not when you drill down on what that means it is deals with major labels.

What is the most common question you get from the Songwriters Guild membership?

How do I get a song cut by Beyonce?

There is a popular image of a songwriter sitting in front of a piano in a little cubicle at the Brill Building or Music Row and grinding out the hits. What kind of business relationships do songwriters have today?

Most songwriters today are independent operators. Music piracy was the death knell for the day of music publishers having staffs of songwriters. The Brill Building is still there, but the last time I visited it was to talk to the folks at Saturday Night Live. There wasn’t a songwriter in sight.

Business relationships now are with lawyers and managers. They put together the deals and venture capitalists put up the money. The deals are done to get the next big recording artist signed to a label and then everyone gets a piece of the action in some 360 deal.

Used to be you found a great singer then you looked for a great song. Now you find a great deal maker then look for someone with deep pockets.

Are there more or fewer songwriters working today than there were ten years ago? If there’s a change, what forces in the business are causing that change?

The days of music publishers who have large staffs of professional songwriters seem to be over. Music publishers used to have both established writers and their "farm team" of new talent. Now they have neither.

The people they sign today (if any at all) are either working recording artists or "future" recording artists. The days of the stand alone songwriter appear to be over. There are multiple causes for this situation but most of the damage was wrought by two specific problems. The first being that the internet has turned into a cyber Somalia.

Professional songwriters used to live on advances from their music publisher. These advances were to be recouped from record sales only (“mechanicals” is the industry term for these revenues). Music piracy killed record sales so that made it impossible for music publishers to recoup the advances they paid songwriters, so they stopped signing writers and let go of the ones they had when their contracts ran out.

For example, the music publisher I was writing for in 1998 had 12 great songwriters on staff. By 2008 they had no songwriters on staff. For the mathematically impaired, that is a reduction of 100 per cent.

The second major problem was/is a practice by the record labels of putting “controlled composition” clauses in their artists' recording contracts. For the non-lawyers reading this, these clauses are a very complicated system established by the record labels to ensure that they do not have to pay the full statutory rate imposed by the US Copyright Office for the songs recorded by the artist that the artist either writes or “controls”.

[Chris Castle adds: This includes songs co-written with a producer or other writer who is not the artist or a member of a group artist. It started right about the time that another SGA member, Hoyt Axton, helped to spearhead indexing the mechanical royalty rate to the Consumer Price Index in 1976.]

Once an artist signs a recording contract containing one of these clauses, and since all the major labels have them they have little choice, the [beginning] artist will receive at most 75 per cent of the statutory rate for recording any song they write or co-write. It is the co-writing that causes problems for the professional songwriters. The record labels, because they can pay a lesser rate for any song written or co-written by the recording artist, insist that the artists now write or co-write all their songs.

This has lead to a tremendous drop in the number of professional songwriters and, in most cases, the quality of the songs. The public is constantly complaining about having to pay US$12 to US$18 for an album with only one or two good songs on it.

You can trace the cause of this problem back to the early 1980s when all the record labels began implementing control compositions clauses in their contracts. Since then the norm on an album is one or two professionally written (or co-written) songs and a lot of filler songs that the artist wrote to satisfy the record label’s demand for cheap music.

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