At the SONA Warrior Awards in October, hitmaker Justin Tranter used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to warn the music business: “If we’re not careful,” he said. “We’re just not going to have any songwriters left.”
It used to be a lot easier to make a living as a songwriter. In the days of physical records, songwriters would get paid with each album sale, even if they had the least popular song on the album. Now, in the streaming era, songwriters say the only way to get a livable wage is to write the album’s breakout single. Getting a song on AM/FM radio is still a good way to make money, but radio hits are tough to come by. Plus, there’s the problem with artists demanding cuts of publishing income, even if they didn’t pen the song, and writing rooms have grown bigger than ever. For these reasons and more, songwriters like Tranter say the current business has led to the “decimation of the songwriter middle class.”
To try to alleviate some of the strain facing songwriters, three small independent labels – Tranter’s Facet Records, The Other Songs and Good Boy Records – have made a new pledge they hope will catch on: giving songwriters a percentage of master royalties— or “points” — on every single record.
“We didn’t feel like the industry was changing fast enough to fix this,” says Billy Webber, co-founder of London-based indie label The Other Songs, which has Ren, Navy and SUPER-Hi on its roster. His company, founded alongside brother Alastair Webber, started first as a series of events, offering songwriters the chance to perform their unused pitch songs in front of a crowd of publishers and advertisers. From the start, Webber says, they knew they wanted to not only take care of their artists, but also to look after the writers behind their records.
In 2020, The Other Songs started offering four points to songwriters on every recording, split between however many writers there are. (The policy excludes writers who are also the artist or producer, roles which already receive cuts of the master income.) They call it the “TOS Writer Royalty,” and it is taken from the label’s share of revenue — not the artist’s.
Tranter’s Facet Records — home to emerging talent like Jake Wesley Rogers, Shawn Wasabi and Shea Diamond — announced earlier this year that it would start a similar program, offering three points from the label’s share to songwriters, also split between however many non-performing writers were on the track.
Jaime Zeluck-Hindlin — founder of Nonstop Management which represents hitmakers JKash, Michael Pollack, and Ryan OG — says she has been calling for a standardized system for songwriter master points for years. She explains that her larger writers can sometimes get half a point or a point on a master when they have enough leverage to negotiate it, but it is still considered a luxury for anyone to receive. “It’s not the norm yet,” she explains. These days Zeluck-Hindlin asks for points for all her clients, not just the hitmakers, and has been making some headway, but she notes it’s a careful conversation that varies project-by-project. “More than ever,” she says, “it’s so hard for songwriters to make money, so I don’t feel as bad asking anymore.”
Writers and their teams are in a difficult position when asking for master points: They don’t want to push too hard and threaten getting cut out of sessions for being labeled “too demanding,” and if an A-list artist wants to cut a song, their name and image alone could propel it to success.
Songwriters historically have not received payment for the master recording, because they are not part of that formal recording process like producers and artists. But now, citing economic hardship for writers — even with a song that is a streaming “success” — it has become more common. “I’ve noticed people are way more open to the conversation than they were before,” says Zeluck-Hindlin.
It might seem like giving a songwriter master income is a band-aid for a larger issue, but those who are fighting for it feel it is the best option available, given the current system. Streaming rates on the publishing side have always been considerably lower than on the master side, and in the U.S., publishing income is regulated by the government, making it much more difficult to make changes.
Good Boy Records, a label started by producer Elie Rizk and entrepreneur and manager John Zamora that represents Mazie, Judith and Georgee, is also working on their own system for master points. “We want to give out one point per songwriter,” says Rizk. The team at Good Boy started to work on finding a way to cut in songwriters since Mazie hit it big with her song “dumb dumb,” which helped Good Boy recoup its distribution deal with Virgin and see “real money” for the first time earlier this year.
By May, the team paid every songwriter who had ever worked with the emerging label a small non-recoupable fee as a thank you. “Since then, we have gotten savvier with our system,” says Zamora. “We treat songwriters like we treat producers – with fees and points every time, but we are still evolving as we go.”
Some producers are also hoping to address the economic problems facing songwriters. Producer, Tre Jean Marie, posted to Instagram this summer that he would be giving £500 of his production fee to non-performing songwriters on every major label release he has. “I believe that the record labels, turning over billions of pounds in revenue every year, should shoulder the responsibility of ensuring songwriters are compensated for their time and work, but until that happens, I want to help,” he wrote. Rizk says he has also shared a portion of his producer fee and points with songwriters on the recent single “Heartbroken” by Diplo, Jessie Murph, and Polo G to makes the payments more equitable.
The heads of the three indie labels say that they hope that by being public about their new offerings for songwriters it will encourage other labels, especially larger ones with much greater financial impact, to follow suit. Tranter says they are already talking with one “pretty large company” to discuss how to implement a similar system at that company and is hopeful for more to follow suit.
But he is not confident the majors will accommodate songwriters anytime soon, especially those that are publicly traded. He thinks there are still other changes that can be made within any label to make it more songwriter-friendly, like offering per-diems, free lunch or free transportation to sessions.
“If we can do it [as a new label], then pretty much any record label that’s really taking itself seriously can do it as well,” Webber says. “Songwriters are basically the beating heart of our industry. Without them, we’re not going to have any masters anyway.”
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