January 5, 2004
Songwriters Say Piracy Eats Into Their Pay
hey think of themselves as the unsung victims of Internet music piracy.
Much of the publicity in the battle over illicit Internet music downloading has gone to artists and record labels. But songwriters say they are also being hurt financially.
Unless they are also performers, most songwriters are typically neither rich nor famous, and their names may be known only to those who bother to read album credits or liner notes.
But their incomes can depend on royalties from sales of recorded singles and albums. In fact, songwriters' earnings are more directly tied to album sales than those of recording artists, who can potentially earn substantial sums through live concerts and merchandise sales.
Charles Strouse, a composer best known for his Tony-winning musicals "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Annie," says illegal downloading has had a disastrous impact on his profession, not to mention his income.
"I am hurting," said Mr. Strouse, who is 75. Even though his songs are not as widely sought as hits by popular rock or pop stars like Sheryl Crow and Eminem, he felt the effects of downloading after the hip-hop artist Jay-Z drew on Mr. Strouse's "It's the Hard Knock Life" from "Annie" for the 1998 album, "Vol. 2 . . . Hard Knock Life."
According to BigChampagne, an online media measurement company, Jay-Z's version of "Hard Knock Life" was downloaded 1.16 million times from July 2000 (when the company began tracking Internet use) to May 2003. The total is probably much higher, said Eric Garland, BigChampagne's chief executive, because the entire lifespan of the song was not counted.
Although songwriters typically earn only pennies for every sale of a recorded song, if every person who downloaded "Hard Knock Life" had bought a CD instead, Mr. Strouse would have collected at least $46,000 in royalty payments, assuming he would have received 4 cents a download.
Mr. Strouse took in about $250,000 from recording royalties in 2002, according to his publisher, Helene Blue. Last year, she said, Mr. Strouse drew only about half that total, mainly because of illegal downloading of various recordings containing his songs.
"I've gotten fat off this business," Mr. Strouse said. "But obviously I'm very annoyed. It's awfully hard to write music. Ownership should be guarded very carefully."
Writers can receive as much as 8.5 cents for each song that appears on an album, each time a copy of that album is sold.
In practice, however, many songwriters receive less, since royalties are typically split with their publishers, leaving them with 4 cents. If a song is co-written, that 4 cents is split again, so the total can amount to just 2 cents. Songwriters also receive royalties of varying amounts when a song is played on the radio, or is used in movies or television.
"Eight cents is nothing; it's cheap," said Carey Ramos, a lawyer for the National Music Publishers' Association, which represents music publishers and their songwriters.
But "a penny here, a penny there - they add up,'' he said. "In the aggregate, it's a big difference in the paycheck of a songwriter."
Barton Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International, an industry group, estimates that because of the difficulties in making a living from the craft, there are only half as many working songwriters today as a decade ago.
Nowhere have songwriters suffered as much as in Nashville, the nation's songwriting capital. The town is teeming with record companies, recording studios and publishing houses, most of which are concentrated in a small area along Music Row, a half-mile stretch along 16th and 17th Avenues, near Vanderbilt University. The city is also home to some 4,000 songwriters, Mr. Herbison said.
"I know people that have had No. 1 songs who are working at the Dillard's makeup counter," Mr. Herbison said. "Not that there's anything wrong with that - it's an honorable occupation - but that's not what they intended to do."
Illegal downloading "doesn't just affect Garth Brooks," he added. "It affects songwriters, it affects every studio in Nashville that's closing, it affects the working musicians. What it ultimately affects is the choice of music the public gets. When I have No. 1 songwriters working other jobs, we're not getting more music."
David Ross, publisher of "Music Row," a Nashville music industry publication, said music publishing companies had sharply reduced the number of songwriters because of plunging revenues from Internet downloading and industry consolidations.
Jason Blume, 47, is one of 15 staff writers who lost his job at the publishing house Zomba Music Group after BMG Music acquired it in 2002. Mr. Blume had been a staff writer at Zomba since 1991, most of that in Nashville, and his credits included hit songs recorded by the likes of Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and Collin Raye.
Now, as Mr. Blume searches for another staff writing job, he said, the sense of despair in Nashville is so prevalent that when people walk down Music Row, "they say they feel like they're on the Titanic."
According to Mr. Ramos of the publishers' group, since the first popular file-sharing service, Napster, emerged in 1999, annual collections of royalties from recording sales (known as mechanical royalties) have fallen 22 percent, to $455 million.
In the four years before 1999, he said, those royalty collections grew 24 percent. Assuming that the pre-Napster growth rate would have continued, and if illegal downloading had not occurred, Mr. Ramos said, songwriters would have collected an estimated $300 million more in payments since 1999.
Shelly Peiken, 46, a songwriter in Los Angeles who co-wrote Christina Aguilera's "What a Girl Wants" estimates that she has lost nearly $200,000 in royalties because of online piracy. Still, she considers herself one of the luckier ones.
"Some of my friends are at the ends of their rope," she said. "I'm not going to make myself sick over it. But if I hadn't had these hits, I'd probably be pretty strung out right now."
Not everyone is convinced that downloading is the devastating problem that the music industry makes it out to be.
"There are a lot of pieces that go into the industry's problems that we're not hearing about," said Wendy Seltzer, a lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties group. "It's easy and convenient to blame it all on piracy."
Ms. Seltzer cited the sluggish economy and consolidation among record labels and radio companies as other reasons that record sales had fallen sharply over the last four years. She argued that, assuming the downloading is authorized, online music distribution actually lowered costs and increased exposure for songwriters and artists.
Songwriters "will have to learn how to adapt to the new technology,'' Ms. Seltzer said. "The buggy manufacturer doesn't have a place in the world of automobiles."
She suggested that the music publishing industry adapt for the recording business a model similar to one used in radio, where broadcasters pay blanket fees for rights to play songs and the money is split among the songwriters.
Whether or not online piracy is the main reason for declining music sales, songwriters are trying harder to make their voices heard in the debate. The Nashville songwriters' association has made more than 20 trips to Washington this year to lobby lawmakers over music piracy, Mr. Herbison said.
In September, Representative Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican, formed the Congressional Songwriters Caucus to help address illegal downloading. About 40 members in the House have joined the caucus.
Songwriters and publishers have also sought new sources of income to compensate for the losses caused by piracy.
Ms. Blue, who has been in the music business 35 years, says one of the most lucrative sources of new revenue has been royalties from cellphone ring tones. Last year, cellphone users bought more than 4.8 million ring tones, according to IDC, a technology research firm.
But with two billion unauthorized downloads of songs every month, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, royalty fees produced from ring tones cannot make up for the toll that piracy has taken on songwriters.
"There's a big dark cloud over the business right now," the songwriter Ms. Peiken said.