By Janine Coveney
As long as there are people with artistic gifts and the creative urge to share them, black music will thrive. The innovations made by African-American artists continue to lead trends in popular music as a whole. We love the music, but industry conditions aren’t showing the creators much love.
I’ve spent more than two decades chronicling the music biz as a journalist atBillboard and other media outlets, and recently wrapped nearly three years working in advocacy at The Recording Academy (Grammys), where I learned more about the legislative framework of the music biz. A large percentage of how music creators are compensated is mandated by the federal government. Today’s outdated copyright system looks at the industry as a place where AM/FM radio and CD sales dominate, online piracy is the creator’s problem and the value of a song is what a federal judge—without any corroborating evidence or music industry insight—says it is. For decades, the industry accepted this as status quo.
The innovations of digital technology and the Internet upset that apple cart. Consumers expect music for free, and new services are being built around acquiring music and offering it cheaply through digital channels. The monetary value of music is being lowered. Without changes, music will be made by hobbyists, not professionals, who will never earn a living entirely from music making. While this has been true to some degree for a while (which is why low-level artists still drive trucks or teach and successful artists launch fashion lines and otherwise diversify), now the disparities are more stark. Imagine all those young hopefuls dying to be stars! Now we can say: “Go ahead and make music for the joy of it kids—but understand that even if you get a hit the returns are negligible. And make sure you study up on accounting, copyright law, marketing, promotion, Internet technology and media—talent alone is no longer enough.”
Not every singer, musician, producer and songwriter working today is an international superstar. And not all of them are equipped to nor interested in becoming anything else. But the current climate no longer supports a middle class of music makers. Compensation for their efforts is diminishing fast. The digital revolution that ushered in the convenience of file sharing, digital downloads, online radio, satellite radio and music streaming services also ushered in a new compensation scale—one that’s drastically different from what the previous generation of creators once earned through sales of CDs, cassettes, and vinyl.
The triumph of having a streaming service pick up a song can be mitigated by royalty returns that are laughably low—fractions of a penny per stream—and only slightly higher if played through a paid subscription service. (Last year, a widely circulated story showed that Pharrell received $2700 in songwriter royalties for 43 million plays of “Happy” on Pandora in 2014—or $60 per 1 million plays.) And this income is from those services that do license music. Recent lawsuits have revealed that some services failed to properly license catalogs of music they are already playing! Today the chances of artists’ music being shared, reposted and downloaded for free is high thanks to limited liability—called safe harbors—for hosting sites. The reality of the Digital Age is that it forces all creatives to work two and three times as hard for fewer returns.
Now I’m not going to shed a tear for the likes of Drake, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jay Z, The Weeknd, Alicia Keys, Kanye West and others: the artist/songwriters with a) years in the game, b) consistent sales/artistic acclaim, c) multiple income streams through endorsements, touring, investments and other businesses and d) the potential to launch them. But if an artist as prominent as Pharrell is getting chump change for tens of millions of plays of a major hit song, mid-level creators are barely making ends meet—especially if they are part of a songwriting team (black music tends to have more credited songwriters per song than other genres).
While we’re constantly moaning about how today’s black music doesn’t measure up to the classics of yesteryear, our legacy R&B artists are facing their own issues, particularly if they didn’t write their biggest hits. Streaming services do pay royalties to both songwriters and performers—but not to performers of music made before 1972 because of their narrow interpretation of copyright law. This is especially problematic when you consider that Golden Oldies and Classics stations play nothing but pre-72 hits yet pay no royalties to artists. When Aretha Franklin’s 1968 “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” is played, the estate of Otis Redding gets royalties—not Ree Ree. There have been legal challenges to this issue, primarily via successful lawsuits against Pandora and SiriusXM by members of the groupthe Turtles in New York, California, and Florida. And AM/FM radio, which compensates songwriters, has never paid royalties to any performers. Many senior artists tour not because they love the stage but because they don’t have other viable means to pay their bills.
Washington, DC may not be a classic music business town, but legislation and policy on these issues is being made there as you read this. The House Judiciary Committee has been reviewing copyright law for the past three years, evaluating whether to make changes that could provide some pay equity for copyright holders. A determination on possible copyright reforms is due by the end of 2016.
Further, the U.S. Department of Justice just completed its review of the consent decrees that dictate how the performance rights organizations ASCAP and BMI operate. It ruled Aug. 4 that each PRO may now license 100 percent of any song with multiple songwriters. This means that a song could be licensed with permission from just one member of the songwriting team, and that writer’s PRO would administer royalties for all composers—even if they’re signed to the other PRO! This ruling was so onerous that a group called the Songwriters of North America filed suit Sept. 13 against the DOJ, saying the feds have no authority to make this change. Furthermore, on Sept. 16 a federal rate court judge in New York also threw out the DOJ’s ruling! So the validity of the consent decrees for ASCAP and BMI is currently in flux.
Why am I ranting about all of this stuff? Because the future of black music is tied to the people who create it. Black music makers and managers need to educate themselves on all of the policies that affect their bottom line. Perhaps then we can break the cycle documented in all those Unsung stories of glory and defeat by eradicating the myth that art and suffering (and poverty) go hand in hand. Music is still a business, and together with the innovations of technology—not despite them—music should still be a viable profession for those who choose to make it.
Janine Coveney is a journalist and cultural critic who has been an editor at Billboard, Billboard Airplay Monitor, Gavin, Impact and Essence as well as a contributor to JazzTimes. Most recently, she was the Manager, Advocacy Content & Communications for The Recording Academy. She is currently freelancing.