A Bungling Bundle: Spotify Short-Changes Songwriters for Minimal Gain (Guest Column)

You’ve most likely heard by now the news that Spotify, through a surprising bundling maneuver, has unilaterally decided to give songwriters a substantial pay cut. As part of our ongoing efforts to provide the songwriting community with data and details related to this incredibly important income stream — which at this point must feel like a continual moving target — we have reviewed and analyzed Spotify’s reporting for the first month where they instituted this change (March), and compared it with the month prior (February).

What Is Happening?: Spotify has decided to bundle audiobooks in its premium tier offerings (affecting 85% of total Spotify subscribers). By doing so, they are now claiming that nearly half of total subscriber revenue is attributed to audiobooks, reducing reported service revenue to music to 52%. This results in a substantial decrease in payments to songwriters, which we explain below.


In March, total mechanical revenue paid by Spotify was reduced by 33.9% (from $36.7 million in February to $24.3 million). This is where the reported yearly $150 million reduction comes from — an estimate built on Spotify’s prior-year performance and payment reports to the Mechanical Licensing Collective. The twist here is that Spotify reported that performance royalties increased 18.75% from February to March (from $31.2 million to $37 million).

Spotify’s performance royalties always fluctuate from month to month (by as much as +/- 10%) but the magnitude of this change is unusual (and unexplained). Was March’s unexpected growth in Spotify’s performance royalties an anomaly, or a precursor to a new level of payments for that royalty? Due to the structure of the mechanical royalty payment formula, an increase in performance payments results in a decrease in mechanical payments.

For many songwriters who have agreements with music publishers, performance royalties are beneficial because half are paid directly to the songwriter and not through their publishing agreement, whereas mechanical royalties run through the publisher.

So, while mechanical payments in March were reduced by 33.9%, the total reduction in payments to songwriters was 9.75% ($67.9 million to $61.3 million), which on an annual basis comes out to $80 million.

Historical Performance vs. Mechanical Payments for CRB III: This harkens back to prior reporting (and confusion) a couple of months ago when the streaming services reported an increase in performance revenue over the prior five-year period (2018-2022). While we cannot explain exactly why performance revenue changed in this historic accounting period, we can presume that it had something to do with deals that were being negotiated during that time and were finalized and took retroactive effect by the time the final remanded reporting was provided and required by the final determination of the appeal.


If Spotify Cut Revenue in Half, Why Aren’t We Seeing a 50% Reduction? The payment structure has various protections so that Spotify and other similar digital service providers cannot unilaterally adjust their prices to the detriment of songwriters, as Spotify has done here. One of those protections is an obligation to pay songwriters a portion of what they pay record labels, to the extent that that amount is greater than the service revenue percentage. This is called the “TCC Prong,” or “Total Content Cost Prong.” Because Spotify’s deals with the record labels apparently do not give them the flexibility to choose what they can bundle into offerings and make price reductions, what they pay the labels has not changed. In fact, in March, that percentage increased by 5.86%, or $13.1 million.

So is the Total Yearly Reduction 150M or 80M? This will most likely land somewhere in the middle, as it depends on what Spotify reports paying on performance (i.e., if March’s performance royalty growth was an anomaly) and what it pays to the labels. Over the course of the next several months, if Spotify does not change its position, we will be monitoring and reporting trends in percentage and actual results as part of our ongoing effort to provide the songwriting community with actual and up-to-date information related to their royalties. You can also check the current going rate of publishing revenue yourself at any time with our royalty calculator, updated monthly.

Spotify spent five years litigating against publishers and songwriters to establish rates for 2018-2022. The result was a positive increase but a major delay in payment. In total, the mechanical increase from all digital service providers came out to about $250 million over that period. Of that, Spotify contributed $98.6 million more, and that’s just from its restated 2021-2022 period. Songwriters did not receive the eventual rate increase until earlier this year.

When Spotify, the NMPA and NSAI reached an agreement for 2023-2027, we thought the fight was over. We were wrong.

At the end of March, Spotify reported yearly revenue of $15 billion. This audiobook bundling maneuver, which affects 100% of all musical content on its service, reflects less than a 1% cost savings for the tech behemoth. And for a limited time, at that, since the settlement referenced above ends in 2027. This begs the question to Spotify analysts and shareholders alike as to whether it is worth it — and leads to the obvious answer: “It is not.” Spotify should reverse course immediately and find 1% savings somewhere else that doesn’t work to decimate the revenue of millions of American songwriters, the lifeblood of our treasured American music industry.

Jordan Bromley leads Manatt Entertainment, a legal and consulting firm providing services to the entertainment industry for over 45 years. He sits on the Board of Directors for the Music Artists Coalition, an artist first advocacy coalition established in 2019.

Trent Smith is a financial analyst at Manatt Entertainment with extensive experience in the streaming economy.

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