The rise of streaming has sidelined songwriters for too long
A few years ago I heard a song that I just couldn’t get out of my head. It was from an artist I had never heard of, a track from their first album. As I shamefully no longer have access to a decent record player, I purchased the download and was wowed by the emotional depth of lyricism that ran through the work. Looking for a deeper connection to the artist, I inquired whether they had written these songs. iTunes couldn’t help me. There was no detail attached to the mp4, nothing on the Apple artist page that gives a clue as to the composition of the material. I consulted the artist’s site in vain. Lots of moody photos and tour dates, but no songwriter information. Can I be the only person to find such important things?
In the age of vinyl, I wouldn’t have faced this problem. If you stumbled across the Four Tops “Walk Away Renee” single 45 at your local garage sale, the physical artifact would give you a wealth of information about what’s in the grooves. Obviously, the name of the record company, Tamla Motown, is clearly visible on the paper label affixed to both sides of the record. The artist’s name is there, as well as the title of the song. But below it, in parentheses, is the name of the songwriter. In the case of “Walk Away Renee”, it was in the plural: Brown-Calilli-Sansone. Underneath is the production credit, the names of the people who made this amazing sounding thing: Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier. On the left you can find the name of the song’s publisher: Intersong Music Ltd. Underneath, the record’s catalog number, TMG 1011, and finally the song’s publication year, 1967.
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These details are all the clues you need to find more material from the people who made this music that moved you so much. What else did Holland and Dozier produce? Did Michael Brown, Bob Calilli and Tony Sansone write any other songs? What else came out on Tamla Motown in 1967? While the information on each record company is a wealth of information for music fans and audiophiles, that’s not what it was printed there for. All of these details were recorded to ensure the creators of the record get paid. This physical connection, between creator and creation, continued in the CD era, but the increase in downloading and, more recently, audio streaming, severed that link.
The major streaming services – Spotify, YouTube, Amazon, and Apple – bury these credits as footnotes, if they include them. And while rights holders are eager to take advantage of the new delivery system, their accounting is still based on the vinyl era.
Back then, labels had to do the heavy lifting, creating and physically distributing records. They took the greatest risk and, therefore, demanded a larger share of the profits. The average recording contract paid the artist about 15% of the wholesale price and required ownership of the rights for the maximum copyright term: 70 years after the artist’s death. As a result, such contracts remain in effect today, more than half a century after the recording of “Walk Away Renee”.
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The rights to this single now belong to Universal Music, which, along with the music labels Sony and Warner, accounts for nearly 70% of the recording industry. When they collect royalties on this song, they pay the Four Tops estate according to the contract the band signed in the 1960s, when manufacturing and distribution is now just a few clicks away. Unfortunately, some labels still offer new artists royalty rates based on today’s old physical business model.
The Ministry of Culture, Media and Sports recently released a report calling for fair compensation for artists and income parity for songwriters. This should start with the industry-wide adoption of a 50/50 royalty split between artists and labels for all digital recordings, whether heritage or new. Introducing a limit on copyright ownership would give artists the right to regain possession of their work after 20 years. And artists can never be sure they’re getting paid properly as the dismal lack of transparency around the financial relationships between labels and streaming services makes it nearly impossible to properly audit their revenue streams. It’s true that streaming services’ lack of transparency regarding royalty rates and the use of algorithms creates problems for artists, but practices inherited from the recording industry are a bigger barrier to fair compensation. .
In the vinyl age, creators were literally at the center of the music industry: their names were right there in the middle of the record for everyone to see. Artists will never be treated fairly by streaming companies until they put content creators back at the center of their offering to music lovers.
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