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.