Freedom Rock

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Songwriters Get Paid (Can we say Micro-Pennies?)

Question: How do you get a songwriter off your front porch?  Answer: You pay him for the pizza.

That joke would be funny if it weren’t so true. More and more songwriting professionals in the music industry have to find creative ways to make money from their craft.

In my last quarterly BMI statement (BMI is Broadcast Music Incorporated, one of three Performing Rights Organizations in the U.S., and the one which collects my performance royalties), the payment on one particular song caught my eye.  Remember, the Performance Royalty is money made from all broadcast performances…terrestrial radio, satellite radio, internet, digital jukeboxes, digital audio services, aircraft, and background music services.

Under background music services, one of my songs was played 187,430 times on two different services, Muzak and CMS. I was thrilled! That meant, for that quarter, my song was being played over 7,809 times a day in different parts of the country . . . times two! My brain was at warp speed thinking of all the ways I could spend the money that those 374,860 plays represented. After tithes and offerings, I could pay off my daughter’s student loans, help my son with his writing career, update this old computer, modernize some 20 yr. old equipment for the studio, hire some musicians for upcoming projects and maybe even start a savings account. Dare I even say those words? Inspirations were blasting into my brain.

It took a matter of nanoseconds for those dreams to be shattered as my eye traveled from the “Count” column, past the “Period,” “Bonus Level,” and “Your %” columns to the “Royalty Amount” column. I sought the number of digits that would be to the left of the decimal point.

I was shocked to see that for all those 187,430 plays on CMS I made $3.63 (that’s not $3.63 a play, it’s $3.63 cents total, for all the plays).  For the same amount of performances on Muzak, I made $5.34, total...double the money. Awesome!

Two questions came to mind. Why are the two amounts so different if they’re both background music services; and, Why am I only getting $.00001 cent (one one-hundred thousandth of a cent) every time my song is broadcast?

Oh, “Bitter” . . . table for one!

I quickly checked the other Background Music Services for the same song.  Playnet played it 702 times and paid me $.57 (that’s $.0008 a play…I’m getting a raise!). The next was Sirius XM Communications. They played it 4 times, but I got $.06 (that’s 1½ cents per play). I’m in the money now.

You can see how hard it is to make a living as a non-performing songwriter. When you get paid every three months, it gives the word “Budget” a whole new meaning.

So, the next time you order a large Meat-Lovers or Super-Veggie pizza, remember to tip the delivery person well.  They just may have written your favorite song.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Show of hands…how many of you can remember the first time you saw or heard The Beatles?  I was a child, sitting in the living room watching The Ed Sullivan Show.  It was something we did as a family every Sunday night right before Perry Mason (my Dad was a lawyer and never missed that show).  We all gazed with wonder as the mop-headed four came out and sang “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah; she loves you….” on black and white TV.  I can still see the girls in the live (not taped) audience wearing their shirt waist dresses and cardigan sweaters, screaming, shouting and crying.  The screams grew louder as each band member's name was written on the TV screen.  Even Lady Gaga doesn’t evoke such a reaction. I still remember my Mom turning to us and saying, “It’ll never replace the ‘Blue Danube Waltz!’”  Boy, how wrong was she?  Paul McCartney is the most successful songwriter alive or dead…by virtue of the amount of money made on his music.  Quick…who wrote the “Blue Danube Waltz”?  You get the gold star if you said Austrian composer Johann Strauss II in 1866, but I doubt that many of you had the answer.

Songs are time machines.  Better than Dr. Who’s Tardis, (Time And Relative Dimension In Space), songs catapult the listener back in time to an exact second in life.  You immediately picture what you were doing, smell your surroundings and experience the emotions you were having when you heard that song.  You remember the instant you first fell in love, your first kiss, or the moment your lover ripped your heart out of your chest, threw it to the ground and stomped all over it…in cleats!  Music has great power…songs have great power.  They can make you laugh or cry, be happy or sad, boost you up or take you down.

With something so powerful, shouldn’t we protect it?  I heard this week of another big Nashville publisher having to let go of some employees.  More jobs lost and not replaced in our business.  There are only a few major record labels left here in TuneTown…such a loss.  Not only for the friends who are now unemployed, but for the loss of new songs and the memories they will evoke to someone down life’s road.  Downloading songs for free…downlooting, or stealing if you prefer, is hurting us all:  the record companies, the artists, the musicians, the producers, the studios, the engineers, the songwriters.  Sure, there is music all over the Internet, and every garage band out there can make their own CD and sell it at their concerts, but not many have the knowledge or the money to really promote that music to the world.  Not many can make their song a hit so that many people hear it, and it throws the listener back in time.

As a writer, I am fortunate to be able to live in my fantasies.  And, I’ve got a photographic memory.  I can be in another place in seconds, just by hearing a song.

So, back to the story…still in the ’60s, and another regular Sunday night with the family sitting around the TV and watching the weekly Ed Sullivan Show again.  The pop group, Gary Puckett And The Union Gap, came on and sang, “Woman, Woman.”  We watched as they performed that song and “Young Girl,” dressed in Civil War Uniforms in glorious black and white.  I was smitten.  Later that summer, and still in high school, I wanted to go to Central Park, NYC, to see the group in concert.  It was only a half hour trip by bus into the city, but my Mom still wouldn’t let me go see them.  She mumbled something about being too young to start those shenanigans.  I was crushed and had to miss The Union Gap‘s concert, unlike the other 100,000 people who came out to watch them play.  All through college, I followed their music, but was never close enough to go see them again.  But, like all happy endings…years later…through a mutual friend and a blind date, I met and married the group’s bass player!  We’ve been making music together for 25 years.  Guess I showed her.

Friday, June 3, 2011


Last week I was in Toronto, Canada, as a guest speaker at the Music Row North Seminar, and I headlined two shows at the Tin Pan North Music Festival. Toronto…what a huge city…I had no idea! Three things were made perfectly clear: Toronto has eight months of winter and four months of road construction; gas prices are sky high ($1.89 a LITER, multiply that by 4 and you roughly have the price per gallon…they pay tax on TAX!!!); and songwriters are songwriters everywhere.

Songwriters…we all face the same problem: The Internet. Ah, that sweet blessing and that horrible curse. A blessing because it is so easy to get our songs heard worldwide, and a curse because it is so easy to get our songs heard worldwide…for free. Canadian songwriters are facing illegal downloads just like American songwriters are facing, and none of us are being paid for our music.

During the seminar, we heard the same concerns from our brothers and sisters to the North: how do we get our songs played, how do we make money from our creations, and how do we stop the stealing? During the song critique session of the seminar, it was clear that the next generation of Canadian songwriters is ripe with talent. The world is in for a treat, but only if they can support themselves with their music, which is getting harder and harder to do.

Music is everywhere on the Internet: You Tube, Pandora, PressPlay, Rhapsody Internet, XM Radio, Live 365, Project Playlist, Digital Audio services like PlayNet, Dish CD and Sirius XM and Digital Video outlets like Touchtunes, AMI Entertainment and E-cast. Songwriters are paid in MICRO PENNIES. Here’s an example. One of my songs, “You Go First (Do You Wanna Kiss),” was downloaded well over a 1000 times on Rhapsody Internet last quarter. That sounds great until you see that amount of downloads netted me $.25 (note the decimal point is to the LEFT of the numbers). Another song “I Meant To Do That” (#1 and Song Of The Year nomination in Canada), was downloaded well over 600 times last quarter, and I made $.07 (again, note the placement of the decimal point). That’s not $.07 per play…that is $.07 for all 682 plays. Awesome!

Before the Internet, songwriters were paid in full pennies for performances. The same songs, with the same number of plays, would net me over a hundred dollars if played on conventional radio. Add up all of my songs, played on conventional radio each quarter, and I could have a moderate income…enough to live on and write another day. As it stands now, with only 1 out of every 30 songs downloaded being paid for (the other 29 are stolen), those micro pennies net me a cup of coffee…if I don’t go to Starbucks.

So, what do we do? We appeal to you, the consumer. Please do the right thing and don’t steal our music, our creations, our livelihood. We want to make a living doing what we love, and I’m sure you want to continue hearing great music from songwriters around the world because, after all, songwriters are songwriters everywhere…and you, wherever you are, can be the solution.

Tuning up before the show

Introducing the next song

Singing In Toronto

Kerry Chater, Lynn Gillespie Chater, Summer March, Andy Kim

Thursday, May 26, 2011

NSAI-Toronto Tin Pan North Music Festival

First time in Toronto. Headlining two shows for NSAI-Toronto Tin pan North Music Festival. Friday night Trane Studios 7:30 pm. Saturday night the Eton House 7:30 pm. Come see me, eh!
So excited to be here!

Monday, May 9, 2011


Did you know that songwriting is the only profession where the government tells you how much you can charge for your product? Even as the price of doing business goes up, demo singers charge more for their vocals, musicians charge more to play, and studios raise their rates on studio time, the songwriter’s pay is dictated by the Copyright Tribunal of the United States Government. So everytime a CD is sold for $14.99, by law, we can only earn 9.1 cents for one recorded song on a CD, split between all the writers and publishers on that song.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think demo singers, musicians and studios should be able to charge what they want. Lord knows that we in the music business are not paid enough as it is. But don’t tell us as songwriters how much we can charge and then make it a law that we can’t raise our rates.

Back in 1909, when the federal Copyright Law was written, it provided for the first compulsory mechanical license to allow anyone to make a mechanical reproduction of a song. The publishers and recording companies got together and decided to pay themselves a penny each for their music. It was sheet music and piano rolls at the time, but later became records, 8-tracks, cassette tapes, and finally CDs, both physical and digital. When someone raised the question “What about the songwriters?” we were given a penny for our works as well, split between all the writers on the song.

In 103 years, since 1909, songwriters have received an 8.1 cent raise. Sound like a profession you want to get into? When my husband started writing songs for a living the mechanical rate was 3 cents. When I started writing songs in 1980, the mechanical license rate was 5.3 cents. When I started lobbying in Washington D.C. for copyright protection, it was 5.75 cents. Through the lobbying efforts of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI), it was raised to 6 cents, then 7.1, then to a whopping 9.1 cents where it stands now…an 8.1 cent raise in 103 years. Awesome!

Think of an upside down pyramid with the point being the songwriter. Above them are the publishers, the producers, the musicians, the studios, the artists, the agents and the managers, the record companies and the consumers, growing larger as you go up. When the money for the CD comes in (remember my last blog about mechanical royalties) the money starts at the top and trickles down to the bottom, until the songwriter is left with pennies. Talk about trickle down economics! As the NSAI motto states, “It All Begins With A Song.” No one above the songwriter would have any money in the music business without that song, but when the money comes in, we are the last ones to receive any. It can be as much as 9 months to a year before we start seeing any money for a recorded song after the CD is released.

Yet still we persist. Songwriters don’t write because we want to…we write because we have to. We walk around with our heads in the clouds because there is always a melody or lyrics in our brains, or at least the right side of our brains, that just has to come out. We didn’t get into this profession for the money, but it sure would be nice to get the pennies the government says we can have.

So when people who “file-share” or download songs for nothing…or as I call it downloot our songs, thinking they’re “sticking it to the record company” think again. You’re hurting all of us in the music industry…especially me, the songwriter at the bottom of that upside down pyramid.

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Show of hands…anyone know how songwriters get paid? Anyone? I didn’t think so…and that’s our fault as songwriters. We sit in a room with no windows, and pour out our hearts to the world, and don’t communicate that we’re losing our profession. Most of us could care less about politics, or the "left brain" affairs of daily life. Less than 10% of all songwriters have their songs recorded at all, and less than 1% get their songs on the radio. So, how does anyone make money writing songs?

Songwriters get paid by the royalty system in two ways. They are paid with Performance Royalties, when your song gets played either on terrestrial radio, satellite radio, or in concert; and they are paid with Mechanical Royalties, when the CD, on which the song is recorded, gets sold.

Let’s start with Mechanical Royalties. Up until recently, a songwriter could make a somewhat decent living having his songs recorded on CDs, or LPs as they started out…even if the song was not a single (remember, less than 1% of songwriters reach that "single" status). When I go to Washington DC to lobby for copyright protection, I am constantly amazed to find out that most of our lawmakers think songwriters are all rich. “All you need to do is get one song cut and you’re a millionaire,” is what I hear constantly. Not true.

Show of hands again…who knows how much I make if I have one song cut on one CD that costs $14.99? Anyone? If you said a dollar, I’d like to write for you.  Actually, that is what the lawmakers in Washington answer when I pose that question to them. The conversation continues something like this: Me: “No, guess again.” Them: “50 cents?” Me: “No…lower.” Them: “25 cents?” Me: “No, lower still.” Them: “Surely not less than 10 cents?” Me: “Yes…less than 10 cents…prorated between all the writers and all the publishers on the song.” That means, if you co-wrote the song with two other people, and those writers each had one publisher (sometimes there are as many as 6 publishers on a song) then the 9.1 cents that we get for one recorded song on a CD gets divided 6 ways and turns into less than pennies each. Do they still make pennies? Yes, because I get paid in them. Still want to be a songwriter?

In my next blog, I will tell you about Performance Royalties…stay tuned if you’re a songwriter…or a wannabe. Remember, all paid songwriters started out as wannabes…me included. I just didn’t know how to make money at it. I’ll let you in on a little secret…it’s hard; but the feeling I get when I start out with a blank piece of paper and a few hours later come out with a song is unparalleled. Next time, I’ll explain about Performance Royalties. I realize it’s "left brain" kind of stuff, but if you want to make money in this biz, you better know how you get paid.

Donna Ulissse and the Poor Mountain Boys: Where the Cold Wind Blows