Is the Dedicated Songwriter Going Extinct?

Disruption invariably produces winners and losers, and stand-alone songwriters may just become the losers.

That was the sentiment among several top composers at the Rethink Music Conference in Boston on Wednesday, most of whom were great at describing the problem but lost when it came to generating solutions.  “Freemium doesn’t work for composers,” said Bill Whelan, the brain behind Riverdance.  “And the whole notion of free is going to affect creativity, I know it sounds dark.”

The problem lies in diversification.  The big push for performers is to diversify beyond the recording, and capture revenues from performances, publishing, merchandising, sponsorships and other areas.  But dedicated songwriters are behind the scenes, and penning notes and lyrics that power others towards fame.  “Songwriters can only rely on the traditional revenue streams,” said Jay Rosenthal, senior vice president and general counsel at the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA).  “And the number of spots at major labels is down about 50 percent.”

Rosenthal is referring to the number of writing opportunities for major-backed artists, a previously-strong source of employment for composers.  Rosenthal also observed that there are “fewer artists at the top making money,” while also noting that the “middle class of artists and songwriters are getting pushed down,” a takeaway he deemed “irrefutable.”

So, wouldn’t that mean fewer songwriters are starting careers?  Absolutely not!  Songwriter Bob Regan noted that songwriters are “pouring into Nashville,” but they are ultimately chasing fewer opportunities.  Meanwhile, more recording artists are elbowing themselves into publishing credits, part of a land-grab that squeezes writers even further.

But what about innovative solutions?  That question invariably popped up in the audience, though nothing concrete emerged.  But perhaps the days of specialized song creation are simply waning – just like the singers and standards of last century.  “I as a music publisher have always believed that the song is a successful ingredient for a recording,” said Ralph Peer, CEO of Peer Music.  “But there’s a reduction in slots because of unlicensed music, and there’s no backstop for it.”

That was the sentiment among several top composers at the Rethink Music Conference in Boston on Wednesday, most of whom were great at describing the problem but lost when it came to generating solutions.  “Freemium doesn’t work for composers,” said Bill Whelan, the brain behind Riverdance.  “And the whole notion of free is going to affect creativity, I know it sounds dark.”

The problem lies in diversification.  The big push for performers is to diversify beyond the recording, and capture revenues from performances, publishing, merchandising, sponsorships and other areas.  But dedicated songwriters are behind the scenes, and penning notes and lyrics that power others towards fame.  “Songwriters can only rely on the traditional revenue streams,” said Jay Rosenthal, senior vice president and general counsel at the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA).  “And the number of spots at major labels is down about 50 percent.”

Rosenthal is referring to the number of writing opportunities for major-backed artists, a previously-strong source of employment for composers.  Rosenthal also observed that there are “fewer artists at the top making money,” while also noting that the “middle class of artists and songwriters are getting pushed down,” a takeaway he deemed “irrefutable.”

So, wouldn’t that mean fewer songwriters are starting careers?  Absolutely not!  Songwriter Bob Regan noted that songwriters are “pouring into Nashville,” but they are ultimately chasing fewer opportunities.  Meanwhile, more recording artists are elbowing themselves into publishing credits, part of a land-grab that squeezes writers even further.

But what about innovative solutions?  That question invariably popped up in the audience, though nothing concrete emerged.  But perhaps the days of specialized song creation are simply waning – just like the singers and standards of last century.  “I as a music publisher have always believed that the song is a successful ingredient for a recording,” said Ralph Peer, CEO of Peer Music.  “But there’s a reduction in slots because of unlicensed music, and there’s no backstop for it.”