Stop short-changing songwriters

The incomparable Beyoncé appeared at the Verizon Center on July 29 and July 30, and among the songs she performed was one of her latest hits, “Love on Top.” What may be surprising to the crowd is that Beyoncé did not write “Love on Top” entirely on her own. While a talented songwriter in her own right, Beyoncé, like most recording artists, often records and performs songs written in partnership with others.

In the case of “Love on Top,” the song was co-written by Shea Taylor and Terius “The Dream” Nash. In fact, Taylor co-wrote five of the 15 songs on Beyoncé’s “4” album. But we’re confident that very few, if any, of the Verizon Center crowd has ever heard of him. That’s because Taylor, like the vast majority of songwriters, does not perform music, and so does not actually tour, sign record deals or sell T-shirts.

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Fans want to hear Beyoncé sing “Love on Top,” not Taylor. So, he makes his living largely by collecting performance royalties when his song is played on the radio and television, performed in nightclubs and concert venues like the Verizon Center and streamed over the Internet by services like Pandora and Spotify.

The difference between songwriters and recording artists, and the ways they each make their living, is critical to understanding a policy issue confronting Congress today, as hearings begin to reconsider the federal Copyright Act.

Web streaming is quickly becoming the preferred method for listening to music in this country. And Pandora, with more than 70 million active listeners and about a 70 percent market share, is by far the nation’s most popular service.

That’s why we’re deeply troubled by the pitifully low royalty Pandora pays to songwriters, composers and music publishers for the rights to stream their creative works online.

It makes sense that one of Pandora’s core input costs should be royalties paid to the creators of the music they stream. But right now, Pandora only pays about 4 percent of their annual revenue in performance rights royalties to songwriters, composers and music publishers.

In fact, every 1,000 plays of a song on Pandora is only worth about 8 cents to songwriters and composers. In the case of songwriter Shea Taylor, that means his share of royalties from Pandora streaming “Love on Top” more than 42 million times in 2012 was only $574 — that is, $3,826 to be divided among all the writers and publishers on the song.

Yet, Pandora is going to great lengths to pay songwriters like Taylor even less.

Last fall, Pandora filed suit against the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers in federal rate court demanding lower royalty rates. And the Federal Communications Commission is currently considering Pandora’s application for a broadcast license following its purchase of a small FM radio station in South Dakota, which the company publicly stated, in a guest opinion column in The Hill newspaper, was expressly aimed at lowering royalty payments owed to songwriters.

The outcome of both proceedings will have real consequences for professional songwriters and composers who depend on performance royalties as part of their livelihoods. And that, in turn, could have a profound negative impact on what is now a thriving music industry in this country.

Songwriters argue Pandora can and should pay a fair market rate for their work.

We agree.

As the copyright debate moves forward and Congress is asked to allow Internet music streaming services to profit at the expense of songwriters, we ask you to keep two thoughts in mind: (1) performance royalties are a core pillar of a songwriter’s increasingly precarious livelihood, and (2) is $574 really too much for a Wall Street-traded company raking in hundreds of millions in revenue to pay Taylor for 42 million streams of a brilliant song like “Love on Top”?

In updating our nation’s copyright laws, our role as members of Congress should be to ensure the law enables songwriters to get paid a fair market rate for their hard work — and certainly doesn’t create any obstacles to it.

That will benefit our culture, artists, consumers, innovators and songwriters, like Shea Taylor, alike.

Blackburn has represented Tennessee’s 7th Congressional District in the House of Representatives since 2003. She sits on the Budget, and the Energy and Commerce committees, and she is co-chairwoman of the Congressional Songwriters Caucus. Chu has represented California’s 27th Congressional District since 2009. She sits on the Judiciary and the Small Business committees, and is co-chairwoman of the Creative Rights Caucus.