Big labels or Google - who is the songwriters' worst enemy?
Digital rights raise artists' hackles
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.
Who are you listening to at the moment and what new music interests you the most?
Luca Mundaca, a fabulous new Brazilian jazz artist who plays great guitar, sings like an angel and writes amazing melodies. I have no idea what she is singing about since I don’t speak Portuguese. But the songs knock me out anyway. That’s what I call great songwriting.
Where do you think that songwriters are going to end up in the next five to ten years? What role do you think they will have in the music business?
Songwriters were the number one losers of income in the US economy in 2004, with music piracy taking its toll, so we are used to tough times. I hope to see a bottom form somewhere in the steep drop in record sales and a rebound sometime in the next ten years. If that doesn’t happen I guess we will all end up sleeping in the subway!
The real role of songwriters in the music business is to add meaning to people’s lives. That is not a job you want to leave to amateurs. It is a job for professionals.
Do any of these companies ever come to you to ask what you think or try to make a deal with your members?
Yes, we have had companies come to us about deals. But that is because our catalogue administration programme has some hit songs that you must have to compete in the market. So in terms of whether these services are "reaching out" to smaller labels and music publishers, the SGA is not a good gauge.
If you had to rank the top five online companies, meaning the most friendly to songwriters, which ones would they be and why?
Songwritersguild.com would be number one *grin*. After that I am not a fan of any particular online company since I have had to spend the last three years of my life fighting them in rate court to try to get a decent interactive streaming rate - which we finally won! But I am a subscriber to Rhapsody and I check out MySpace a lot since I have so many friends who are artists and in bands. MySpace, at least, has exposed a lot of indie music.
And the five worst?
Whoever the top five p2p sites are today. And just for the record, I am not a fan of Google because I believe its search algorithm reduces all art to the lowest common denominator. That’s a real culture-killer if ever I saw one.
Anti-copyright organisations often try to tell musicians and the music industry that they have their eye on the wrong ball, that they can offset the decline in CD sales by selling another T-shirt to fans who would be easy to find because they are all on email.
Songwriters don’t sell T-shirts. We’re too ugly and we dress funny. Songwriter fan clubs meet in phone booths so the email lists are too small to monetize effectively.
But seriously folks, songwriters don’t sell concert tickets or ancillary merchandise. We make our money on record sales and radio airplay. Or, we used to make our money on record sales. Illegal downloading ended that. Now we are looking for new jobs.
The most infuriating thing about being lectured by anti-copyright groups about how songwriters need to get a new "business plan" is who gave them the right to tell us how to make a living? Who are they to say we shouldn’t fight to defend our rights? In truth, I find their suggestions unbelievably arrogant and self-serving.
Do you find that there are a lot of self-appointed music industry experts who have never sold a record? I was sneered at by Eben Moglun at Future of Music Policy Summit II in 2001 for questioning the effect of piracy on independent artists and I was told more or less that I was a primitive thinker because I didn’t see that declining CD sales would be made up by merchandise.
I was also on a panel with Corynne McSherry of the EFF at which, in shades of Karl Rove, she wedged the audience by asking the crowd whether "Silicon Valley" was going to let "Hollywood" push it around. Thankfully, the "Silicon Valley" fans and the "Hollywood" fans hadn't been tailgating or painting themselves funny colours. [Editor's note: And if "Silicon Valley" wouldn't listen to "Hollywood", would "they" listen to musicians in Bollywood, Miami, Seattle, Austin, New Orleans, London, Harlem, in no particular order?] Have you had similar experiences?
There do seem to be a lot of people trying to make the rules who never played the game. I have had some interesting back and forth on some panels but I must say that the most interesting panel I ever witnessed was at the Leadership Music Digital Summit a couple of years back. The subject was how the music biz could "compete with free".
For some reason there was an actual economist on the panel who was totally silent throughout until the very last when he spoke up and said that anyone who thinks there is a business model that competes with free is out of his mind. In any capitalist society, consumers are taught from cradle to grave to always get the best "deal" they can, and no deal beats free.
I mention his comment only because it was the first time that I ever saw these "self-appointed music industry experts" ever called on any of their malarkey by a real expert and the discussion was concluded in one sentence.
If you had to pick the most important issue of 2009 for songwriters, what would it be?
Same as every year for the past ten. Illegal downloading. If I may quote a real economist, “Nothing competes with free”.
Is rock and roll dead?
Yes, rock and roll is dead. The genre was played out by the mid-1970s but it has survived in a zombie-like fashion for 30 years past its expiration date.
Part of the charm of rock music is that practically anyone can play it. It can be written by amateurs and performed by teenagers without those difficult and expensive years of training that other forms of music require. Unfortunately, that also makes it the perfect "corporate" music.
You can get kids who don’t need money to support families or pay house notes to sign contracts that no thinking adult would sign. This allows a record label to exploit "this year’s model" for all they are worth until they reach the end of their contract and want to renegotiate for decent terms. Then they simply replace them with another teen idol. The simplicity of the music has allowed the major labels to treat recording artists like temp workers.
Hopefully, with the decline and fall of the major label system, we might finally get to see where the music really wants to go once it is released from this corporate death grip. ®
© 2008 Christian L Castle. An extended version of this interview appears here  on Chris' blog. Chris wrote about a detailed analysis of Google's new book registry here . Read an extended interview with Chris here .