Songwriters are often the forgotten entity of many discussions of the new music business. When people talk about records being loss leaders to touring, they naturally presume that the artist must also be 100% songwriter. If the artist is not, the songwriter suffers. On the other side, Adele’s “Rolling In The Deep” sold more units in the US in 2011 than any other song in a 12-month calendar year. Add in worldwide sales and airplay, and her and her co-writers are likely making more than they would have even five years ago. So what is the new reality?
I was reminded of this question when I saw the promotion for the new Counting Crows record. On Monday, the band announced that they were distributing a free sampler of their new album on BitTorrent. Declaring it the “new radio stations”, singer Adam Duritz sees BitTorrent as a good opportunity to gain awareness for his record and tour.
I hope a lot of young bands pay attention because you don’t have to monetize everything to get your name out there. If you are good, get your music out there and that will be the beginning of your career.
All of this seems well and good, except for one thing. This is not Adam’s music. This is not Counting Crows’ music. Lost amidst the discussion is the fact that the Counting Crows are promoting a record of cover songs. All the songs being distributed for free were written by other songwriters. Who are presumably not getting paid while Counting Crows gets their name out there and sells concert tickets. A source has confirmed to me that they did get permission from the songwriters/publishers before distributing the songs. They also properly credit the songwriters on liner notes with the bundle. But what does that buy them?
One of the artists covered on the project is Richard Thompson. That name may not be familiar to some, but to others he’s a genius. Rolling Stone named him one of the Top 20 guitarists of all time, and he’s also been the recipient of the BBC Lifetime Achievement Award. In a Google search, neither Richard or his band that played the song Fairport Convention, are mentioned in any of the coverage of the BitTorrent promotion. So exactly where is the benefit to him? An artist controlling their work and deciding to let someone use it for free is fine as long as they have the option to approve said usage. The Counting Crows promotion may have the opposite effect and might subtly suggest to artists that it’s OK to distribute covers freely without permission.
I got concerned messages from songwriters for my label DigSin when we announced all of our songs for free. Recognizing this as an issue, we are only working with artists who write their own material. We have no desire to screw the songwriter in the process. In fact, other areas of our deals are actually more favorable to the songwriter than other companies. We’re also dealing with new songs that need to gain exposure and grow in popularity.
In the short term, artists who are not looking at their music as anything more than a means to a bigger end are quite possibly exploiting the outside songwriters who help get them there. Counter to that is the artist who actively does promote a single song and works it to the masses. In this case, as Adele showed last year, the new model of the music business works heavily in your favor. Cover songs on YouTube are now driving enough revenue that some publishers are pushing YouTube stars with big followings to record their songs. While viewers may feel there are one too many music competition shows on the air, the songwriters are thrilled for each new use of their song. Further sync placements in a growing world of content both on network, cable and online also start adding up. Then you have the ability for these revenue streams to come more easily worldwide, and you’ve got a situation where the revenues for the hit grow.
And there’s the rub. Sure, the music business has always been about “getting the hit”. But many critically acclaimed songwriters like Richard Thompson have subsisted on numerous artists covering his songs, with each one netting a little money that adds up to a greater whole. Those covers rarely made hits, but afforded the songwriter a living. It’s that revenue that appears to be drying up. Many songwriters are compensating by performing more, and maybe that’s the solution.
Now, just because someone says they’re a “singer” or a “songwriter” does not automatically entitle them to a living doing so. It never has. Yet artists who don’t write may succeed off the backs off of a forgotten songwriter. It rarely works the other way around.