Chart-topping songwriter Mozella on how the DOJ has gotten streaming music royalties wrong

My name is Maureen McDonald, better known as Mozella in the music business and I write pop songs. I’ve co-written songs for Miley Cyrus, One Direction, and Rihanna to name a few. Today I’d like to discuss something that is of utmost importance to me and to my colleagues in the songwriting business.

In recent years, technology and innovation have changed the music industry in many good ways. While the listeners, the technology companies, and record labels have benefited from the growth of streaming music companies, those changes have negatively impacted the livelihood of songwriters. The antiquated laws, or consent decrees, that have traditionally regulated songwriting royalties for radio play and other uses of music does not address streaming music. As a result, the royalties paid to the songwriters for streaming are miniscule compared to those paid for commercial radio.

Songwriters like me depend on collective licensing through the two main performing rights organizations (PROs) in the U.S., ASCAP and BMI, to negotiate with licensees, track our performances, collect and distribute our royalties to us.  Songwriters cannot do this on our own. There are trillions of performances of our songs by hundreds of thousands of businesses every year.  ASCAP and BMI both operate as not-for-profits and pay out as royalties to us all the money they collect, deducting only operating expenses. They are governed by Department of Justice consent decrees to allow them to aggregate and license our rights without antitrust concerns. But those consent decrees were written in 1941 and are woefully out of date in the new music economy dominated by streaming, which wasn’t even invented the last time they were updated.

Music is enormously valuable to the streaming services.  In fact, it is the only product they offer to consumers.  And songwriters are the ones who make all of the music possible.  The problem is that because of the outdated consent decrees songwriters make almost nothing when our work is streamed while the streaming companies build their businesses on our creative work, without paying us fairly.

In a devastating blow to songwriters last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled that they will not review or update the consent decrees, ignoring the voices of copyright experts, members of congress, and thousands of songwriters like me. Those of us who write the music are held hostage by these antiquated consent decrees that make it impossible for us to be paid fairly in today’s world of streaming services that pay us almost nothing. All we asked for were reasonable updates to those consent decrees so we could negotiate fair rates.  Instead, the DOJ sided with the streaming businesses in essence picking them as marketplace winners at the expense of individual songwriters who are struggling to make ends meet. Under the consent decrees, streaming services like Pandora and Spotify can use our music even before we agree to the rates, and if we cannot agree, they still get to use our music and a single Federal judge appointed for life sets the rate.

Here’s where it gets really unfair: record labels (and the vocal artists signed to them) are allowed to set their own rates for streaming and they do. They do not have the same DOJ rate court system, so they are free to negotiate a fair market price for their product. And guess what? They’re making money. At the moment, the master recording of a song owned by a record label is earning about 14 times as much as the songwriter of the same song. For example, I co-wrote and own about 23% of the song Wrecking Ball by Miley Cyrus. Pandora streamed Wrecking ball 260 million times according to the statement they sent to me. They paid me $3,000. My payment was similar from Spotify. The Wrecking Ball video also has nearly a billion (yes, that’s billion with a B) views on YouTube and I’ll will most likely make another $3,000 there.

Terrestrial pop radio has traditionally reimbursed songwriters at a fair rate but the music streaming industry is growing rapidly. Soon, streaming will be the only format for music listening and at current streaming reimbursement rates, even hit songwriters will not be able to make a living. Currently, many talented but less commercially successful songwriters are giving up songwriting altogether. Eventually, America’s greatest export (pop music) will disappear.

Still with me? There’s more. In addition to the decision to not update the consent decree, the DOJ also ruled in favor of something new called 100% licensing. This means the traditional, logical practice of ASCAP and BMI licensing only the shares or fractions of songs written by the songwriters they represent will be ended. In Variety magazine recently David Israelite, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers Assn., said that the decision was “a massive blow to America’s songwriters.” “The interpretation that the consent decrees demand that all works must be licensed on a 100% basis is both unprecedented and disastrous to the songwriting community,” he said. “The decision represents a misunderstanding of copyright law and directly violates the legal guidance given by the Register of Copyright. The defiance displayed by these career antitrust lawyers in ignoring the legal opinion of the Register of Copyright is shocking”.

Most hit music is written in collaboration with a number of other writers. Songwriters work together and negotiate what percentage of the song each is entitled to. The collaborating songwriters may be represented by different PROs. Historically, each PRO would negotiate for the percentage of the song that the represented songwriter owned. Under the new 100% licensing, ASCAP and BMI may be asked to license shares of songs by writers they do not represent, throwing the entire music licensing system into unnecessary chaos for no good reason. The uncertainty about how works will be licensed will have a chilling effect on the creative freedom of songwriters to write with the collaborators they choose. If a PRO is collecting for a writer they don’t represent at a rate they didn’t approve, what rights do writers have regarding transparency, payment, etc.?

So why did the DOJ decide on the side of huge technology companies and not hardworking, independent songwriters? The technology lobby is highly organized and powerful in the nation’s capital and unfortunately independent songwriters are not. Keep in mind that when you pay for your streaming service, or when advertisers pay for streaming service ad time, the technology companies are making the money and not paying the songwriters fairly. With all the money they make, they hire lobbyists who work to influence decisions made in our nation’s capital. We need your help!

Help protect the future of the soundtrack to our lives: music.

The DOJ was unfair to us and we need your voices. Please email your local congressman/woman and senators in support of appealing these DOJ rulings and also in support of the Songwriter Equity Act which amends the Copyright Act and also voice your rejection of the 100% licensing ruling. It’s a small step, but everyone’s voice matters. Thank You. If you enjoy Daily News Bin, consider making a contribution:




Maureen McDonald
Better known as Mozella in the music industry, she’s co-written songs for Miley Cyrus, One Direction, and Rihanna among others

55 Comments

  1. Melissa Slawsky on August 22, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    I have a question and idea for moving forward-
    I propose that Mozella start her own record label. It costs $50.00 to register a publishing company through ASCAP and next to nothing to start a label through Ditto. A lean start-up team can be assembled with her industry connections and she can collaborate with others as she chooses.

    The new music industry is a level playing field where there are little barriers to business… The ‘dinosaurs’ of the industry are lobbying to keep the laws on their side because they can see the writing on the wall. Flood the market with record labels and publishing companies (essentially acting as a self-published ‘indie’ musician) and the laws will eventually have to change.

    • Harry on August 22, 2016 at 2:13 pm

      And just how will this new record label distribute her music? And how will she get it played on radio? And how will she leverage the streaming companies to pay her? And who will collect her royalties? The “new music” industry is NOT a level playing field. For your information, since you probably can’t read, the “indie” labels are NOT making it. They are worse off than the majors. Google (You Tube) is making billions while songwriters earn $3000 for a mega-hit. She only needs to co-write 17 mega-hits a year to make an average income from You Tube. Ridiculous post.

      • Seriously... on August 23, 2016 at 6:56 pm

        “And just how will this new record label distribute her music?”

        Through one of the literally thousands of professional digital/physical distribution companies that go through INgrooves, ADA or Red, or one of the self-services like Tunecore, one would assume.

        “And how will she get it played on radio?”

        Hire an independent radio team.

        “And how will she leverage the streaming companies to pay her?”

        You don’t need to “leverage” anyone. They just pay you through your distributor. It’s the law actually.

        “And who will collect her royalties?”

        Uh, she will. Through her distributor, PRO, publishing mechanicals collector, SoundExchange, and any other revenue sources she may have. Seriously, it’s the music industry, not rocket science.

        “The “new music” industry is NOT a level playing field. For your information, since you probably can’t read, the “indie” labels are NOT making it. They are worse off than the majors.”

        Arguably not even close to true. If there was any point to this unprofessional rant, it could have been that things are unfair because the labels have equity in the streaming services, get preferential playlist placements, and more, but somehow I doubt you know anything about that.

        “Google (You Tube) is making billions while songwriters earn $3000 for a mega-hit. She only needs to co-write 17 mega-hits a year to make an average income from You Tube. Ridiculous post.”

        Writers don’t make enough from streaming. That much is clear. But YouTube can pay and pay well if you know how to monetize it properly.

        In summary, I don’t think you actually know anything about the music industry, so perhaps worry less about it.

    • Peter on August 24, 2016 at 1:57 am

      You are forgetting one important fact: She is not an artist so what purpose would setting up a record label have if she has a hit song that she thinks would work perfectly for, example, Taylor Swift who is signed through the record labels Big Machine/Universal?

  2. Jay Whiting on August 22, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    Maureen,

    As a songwriter, I can relate and feel your frustration. I am in no way as accomplished as you are, but I hope to be someday, so I know that this will affect me someday. There is a way to solve this, not easily, but tried and true. But it will take the entire songwriter and songwriting industry to agree it’s that important and work together.

    Strike.

    If every songwriter, composer, film scorer, etc. were to say, ENOUGH, we’re not going to take it anymore; and until the Department of “Justice” hears us… NO NEW MUSIC, ANYWHERE. PERIOD.

    Every union in the country, especially the big ones, understand this power, and use it effectively. We can write letters and make phone calls to whomever you want, but they can ignore them, and they have and will continue to do so. But the DOJ cannot ignore every business, organization, film studio, radio station, advertiser, television and cable channel producer, yadda yadda yadda, screaming at the of their lungs – to the people who they are making campaign contributions to – when all of their projects come to a screeching halt. I give it two weeks and you’ll have hearings in Congress about it and it will be front page news and the leading story on every evening news show.

    Yes, there are risks in doing something this dramatic. But if you want change bad enough, and you believe we need change, it will take something like this for it to happen.

    Good luck.

    J

  3. Paul Gelsomine on August 22, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    Very good idea, STRIKE!

    Just wondering how this could be feasible ?

    Most indépendant songwriters are not organised the way unions are.

  4. Fishbone on August 27, 2016 at 10:13 pm

    The answer to this problems is to form a Union Song Writer Organization . this can be done.

  5. […] “In a devastating blow to songwriters, the Department of Justice (DOJ) ruled that they will not review or update the consent decrees, ignoring the voices of copyright experts, members of congress, and thousands of songwriters like me. Those of us who write the music are held hostage by these antiquated consent decrees that make it impossible for us to be paid fairly in today’s world of streaming services that pay us almost nothing. All we asked for were reasonable updates to those consent decrees so we could negotiate fair rates.” To see more of Maureen’s article click here […]

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