As one could imagine, spending two decades as a songwriter in the music industry comes with a number of challenges. You can certainly anticipate the struggles involved with writing a hit song, finding the right performer to sing it and getting it played on the radio. Those seem pretty obvious. But what I never imagined is that one of the challenges I would face as a songwriter would be the federal government and outdated regulations.
Most readers won’t recognize my name, unless you’re a diehard country music fan or my mother. But you’ve probably heard my music. And that’s just fine with me. Like so many of the men and women who write the songs you sing in the shower and tap the steering wheel to on the way to work, I’m happy to create in the shadows of the spotlight.
I’ve been writing songs since I was 13 years old and had a crush on the girl next to me in English class. I got my first publishing deal at 21, wrote thousands of songs and became what Nashville likes to call a “ten-year overnight success.”
My first No. 1 hit, Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats,” brought me my first Grammy. Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” was my second No. 1 hit, and I’ve been fortunate enough to write nine more chart-topping songs since then for artists like Tim McGraw, Taylor Swift and Dierks Bentley, among others.
Sadly, I may be a prime example of the end of a golden era of American songwriters. That’s because songwriters are some of the most heavily regulated small business owners in the country. I say “small business owners” because while we may have publishers, songwriters are self-employed. And yet, the heavy hand of government effectively sets the rates for three-quarters of the income that we receive.
It’s the very definition of government overreach. Imagine a private property owner being told they can’t negotiate terms in the free market because the government regulates the terms instead.
It’s important to realize that songwriters are different from the artists who perform our songs. There’s no concert revenues, t-shirt sales or endorsement deals. Songwriters like me choose to license our music through performance rights organizations, or PROs, because licensing individually to the hundreds of thousands of businesses who want to use my music would be next to impossible. PROs help songwriters track and collect the royalties we earn when our music is played or purchased, and this income is what we’ve come to depend on to support our families.
It used to be that you could make a decent income from sales of albums or CDs, but those are relics of the past. People don’t buy music anymore; they rent it. Today, everyone is streaming music – including me.
But the laws that govern how streaming companies pay songwriters haven’t kept up with that shift. And because of that, on average, it now takes about 1 million streams of a song across the top streaming services for a songwriter to earn just $125. If that sounds crazy, that’s because it is.
For example, the song “Need You Now” was streamed 72 million times the year it became a hit. But as one of the four co-writers, I was paid only $1,500. That’s how much I made from streaming revenue on a song that won the Grammy for song of the year. Imagine what it’s like out there for songwriters who don’t have a huge hit.
And that’s why songwriters need help from policymakers in Washington.
In this country, the people who create books, TV, art, video games – you name it – they all get to sell their works in a free market. But not music creators.
Because right now, the two largest PROs representing songwriters — ASCAP and BMI — operate under some of the oldest federal consent decrees that exist today. These laws were written in 1941 and haven’t been updated since 2001 – way before streaming took off and even before the iPod hit stores.
I believe American songwriters, composers and publishers deserve to be paid fair market value for the use of our property, just like any other small business owner is for the use of their products.
Throughout our nation’s history, music has been one of the hallmarks of American creative genius. From Stephen Foster, Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building hits of the ’50s, straight through to what’s pouring out of stereo speakers around the globe today.
Our songs have always marked our country as the world leader in the field of popular music. But our work as songwriters will continue to be undervalued until the government removes itself from our business process, gives songwriters more flexibility to negotiate and lets the free market do its job.
Congress and the new administration have the power to change the laws to better reflect the reality of today’s music marketplace. And I urge them to act.
The future of American songwriters depends on it.
Josh Kear is a Nashville-based songwriter who co-wrote the Grammy Award-winning hits “Need You Now” by Lady Antebellum, and “Before He Cheats” and “Blown Away” by Carrie Underwood.
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