A call to arms: Songwriters fight for equity in today’s music marketplace

A call to arms: Songwriters fight for equity in today’s music marketplace

Most people think of music as a form of art. But for thousands of Americans like me, who make our living creating music, it’s also a business. 

I’ve been a professional songwriter long enough to remember when a hit song would earn you enough money to pay the rent for a while. Sure, it might not get you a mansion in Beverly Hills, but a hit song once meant enough money in royalties to live comfortably. I was able to put my kids through college on the royalties I earned from my “Old Fashioned Love Songs.”


But in 2016, the royalties songwriters once earned from sales of records, CDs and music downloads are shrinking dramatically as more and more consumers choose streaming. The average amount of royalties songwriters earn for a song streamed a million times on the major audio streaming services is only about $125. It’s barely enough to buy a nice steak dinner for two, much less pay the rent and put food on the table. 

You don’t have to be an economist to see that songwriters are facing some troubling trends in the marketplace.

In theory, a robust collective licensing system, such as the one that’s existed in this country for more than 100 years, should foster both music and commerce, enabling both those who create and those who use music to flourish alongside one another. 

Billions of people around the world benefit from this synergy each time they turn on the radio driving to work, fall in love on the dance floor, go shopping at the mall, watch their favorite show on television or stream the latest release from a hot new artist on their smartphone. People’s lives are touched. Businesses prosper. Music creators get paid. 

It’s almost a perfect circle — or at least it was.

Wonderful technology brought us streaming. But it has arrived so fast and forcefully that our nation’s outdated music licensing laws have not been able to keep pace with how people enjoy music today. World War II-era regulations are allowing some corporate internet giants, who control all the most popular pipelines of music delivery, to prosper at the expense of music creators. 

Songwriters know there are no guarantees of success in our profession. But when they do succeed, and millions of people listen and love their work, they should be fairly compensated. 

Instead, at a time when songwriters’ music is being used more than ever before and streaming revenues are skyrocketing by more than 45 percent in the past year alone, songwriter royalties have remained relatively flat. 

Without question, this is because our laws treat songwriters differently than any other copyright owner. The free market determines the value of a person’s work in every other creative industry, be it books, movies, video games, television or painting. And yet, for the past 75 years, the federal government has largely decided how songwriters are compensated. 

Fully three-quarters of the average songwriter’s income is regulated by a web of outdated federal laws, which includes “consent decrees” that haven’t been updated since before the iPod hit the market. 

Given the competitive realities of today’s music marketplace, it’s absurd that American songwriters, the ultimate small business, are more heavily regulated by the federal government than the giant corporations that use and profit from the music we create.

And so my advice to aspiring young songwriters has changed in recent years. While I will always celebrate and encourage the creative spirit of songwriters, I now have an additional message, one that is more political and more urgent: Educate yourself about copyright law. Get involved in the fight to modernize our music licensing laws. Be outspoken about the inequities in the current system, because it won’t correct itself. We must fight for change. 

I know today’s music creators are facing serious challenges, and yet, I am hopeful that by raising our collective voice, we can bring about reforms to our music licensing system that will keep America’s music industry alive and thriving. 

Williams is an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe-winning Hall of Fame songwriter and the president and chairman of the board of The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.