Over the last several years there is no doubt that Nashville has been one of the fastest growing ‘it’ cities in America. Real estate, job opportunities and the cost of a cup of coffee are climbing by the day. But while other industries are booming, the city’s cultural bedrock of songwriting has been quietly crumbling. Over the last fifteen years the number of working songwriters has decreased by nearly 90%.
There is a documentary coming out soon called “The Last Songwriter”. Their trailer does a great job of quickly putting this into perspective.
Yeah... so that means that if you move to Nashville to follow your dreams, beat all the odds, get a publishing deal AND get a song on the radio that millions of people hear, you still may not make enough money to support yourself. Last month I was invited to travel to Washington, DC with the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) to speak to Congress about protecting the American songwriter. I was both honored and pretty nervous. This is my job, and even I find this stuff super daunting and confusing sometimes. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I did learn an awful lot and wanted to briefly share with you guys some of my take home points.
The main focus on this trip was to talk about the recent Department of Justice (DOJ) ruling on 100% licensing and to promote the Songwriter’s Equity Act (SEA). (Have I lost you yet? It’s a lot of acronyms, I know.) That means that myself and fellow songwriters, Jimmy Robbins and Marcus Hummon, took about 30 individual meetings with members of Congress and NSAI leadership to discuss the struggles of being paid fairly for our creative work.
You may or may not have heard that the DOJ recently ruled into place something called 100% licensing. Basically every songwriter’s music is licensed through what is known as a Performing Rights Organization (PRO), the two largest in Nashville being ASCAP and BMI. It is extremely common for songwriters to collaborate across PROs. Previously if you wanted to license a song you would have to get a license from each of these PROs and they would in turn pay each songwriter for their share. This was known as fractional licensing. The latest ruling states that if anyone wants to license a song, they only have to go to one PRO for a 100% license on a song. In turn they only have to pay one PRO and leave the remaining distribution of funds and paperwork for the writers to work out between themselves.
In short, that’s like building a house and paying your contractor, but not your electrician or your plumber. Or rather paying your contractor for all the work and asking them to pay everyone else, even though they don’t work for the same company. It’s not gonna happen, and ultimately it discourages collaboration which matters because most of your favorite songs were probably written by writers from differing PROs. Recently BMI's rate court judge overturned DOJ's decision, and though that it a short-term victory for songwriters, the war is far from over as DOJ could still appeal the decision.
In other news, NSAI has spent the last several years working to pass something known as the Songwriter’s Equity Act. The SEA is designed to modernize they way songwriters negotiate their mechanical and performance rates and put them on a more fair playing field. Songwriters are still operating under laws that were put in place in 1909 and 1941. Forget laws that pertain to streaming, we are still legislatively talking about sheet music! Spotify pays a disproportionately larger share of money to the record label vs. the songwriter. What’s worse? Songwriters are also restricted by something called compulsory licensing. So when an artist like Taylor Swift pulls her music from Spotify because she doesn’t agree with their rates, songwriters aren’t allowed that same privilege.
As you can see, there’s a lot of work to be done and this is just the tip of the iceberg! And it’s going to take music makers and music lovers demanding change to get our industry back on track.
If you want to learn more about these issues and how you can get in involved in protecting and advocating for songwriters check out NSAI’s official site: https://www.nashvillesongwriters.com/nsai-advocacy-overview