A Letter To Taylor Swift: How She Can Put Her Prowess To Better Use
I’m writing because, like many others, I saw the love letter you penned to Apple in defense of “independent” artists everywhere.
What a well-written and well-thought-out letter it was.
However, between you and me, we need to clear up a few things…
First, may I say that, while I applaud your effort to help bolster the voice of all the newbies “just starting out” in the music business, let’s face it: We both know independent artists don’t have much of a chance of “getting out of debt” (as you put it) due specifically to Apple’s reversal on the three-month royalty thing.
Second, I’m not sure if you’re aware, but Apple was already prepared to compensate artists for the free three-month trial in the form of increased payouts going forward (just an FYI).
Third, I’ve heard some rumblings from certain naysayers who feel your motivation in writing the letter was not because of your desire to help the little guy, but — and, remember, this is them, not me — rather the simple fact that if Apple holds back three months of your royalties, you’d stand to lose millions.
To me, that’s hogwash. You have enough money to last you 10 lifetimes, and even though you’re barely old enough to rent a car by yourself, you seem savvy enough not to fall under the influence of your team of greedy music business veterans who stand to lose their trio of matching Ferraris should the royalties not come through.
So, I say, “Screw the haters!” (Although, this guy does have a point.)
Having said that, being where you are, at the tippy top of the musical mountain, I’m not sure you realize your letter, as heartfelt as it was, will wind up nothing more than a great piece of pop culture fodder for a trillion buzz-hungry media outlets in search of the latest hourly scoop.
This is because, as it stands now, 99 percent of independent artists earn next to nothing from their performance royalties. You need to be played thousands of times before the conversation of “royalties” of any kind mean anything to you.
So, three months or no three months, it really won’t have much effect on the bank accounts of the new artists you speak of.
Case in point, I’m as far from a new artist as it gets, but I just received a royalty check from one payout service for the first quarter of 2015 totaling a whopping $0.09.
Sadly, this is the norm for most independent artists: getting checks in the mail wherein the stamp on the envelope is worth more than the check itself.
The fact I’ve actually composed TV theme songs and have a vast catalog of tunes orbiting somewhere in the void should demonstrate how difficult it is to earn adequate royalties from your music.
And, sadly, checks like the one I received further prove that, while there are a heck of a lot more opportunities now for the indie artist than ever before, when it comes to breaking new talent and sustaining a career, there’s still no substitute for terrestrial radio.
Sure, these days, it seems every other month, some lucky troubadour stumbles his or her way to a bazillion YouTube hits, then earns a few hundred grand thanks to ad placements, but, for the most part, there’s still nothing like being played in heavy rotation with 50,000 watts of NYC’s over-caffeinated, empty-headed disc jockeys behind you.
Ask anyone’s who’s had the benefit of “The Machine” behind them — i.e. having your single played 10-20 times a day in a major market like New York, LA or Chicago — and they will tell you the world is yours.
But, I’m sure you, of all people, know exactly what I’m talking about, as you’re probably reading this from your Gulfstream lll.
Lastly, when speaking about performance royalties, we would be remiss if we did not address the elephant in the room, which is, surprise, FM Radio.
Did you know, Taylor, darling, that FM radio pays zero dollars and zero cents in performance royalties to all artists when playing their music? Considering just this morning you tweeted your self-professed love for “pop radio,” I assume you don’t.
Yet, you really can’t have a conversation about performance royalties these days without including terrestrial radio.
AM-FM stations nationwide have been exempt from having to compensate artists since the beginning of time.
They claim it’s “good exposure.”
Thus, they feel those lucky enough to be chosen should simply say, “Thank you!” and move along.
Given my praise for its career-making abilities in the previous paragraph, as well as your obvious Twitter glee, perhaps they’re right. Who knows?
But, if you’re going to take the time to go after Apple with such drive and intensity, you should probably do the same with pop radio, too.
This is obviously a conversation for another day, but it makes for a good time to suggest to you that, if you really want to use your musical super-powers to help artists, everywhere, I would implore you to take a trip to DC and help Rep.
Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) urge Congress to push the bills removing terrestrial radio’s exemption through its mucked-up channels.
Beyond that, if an artist as well-established as yourself wanted to do something, personally, to help today’s up-and-coming artists, I would recommend allowing a different independent act to open each of your shows on your next tour.
If that’s too crazy, simply tweeting out one new artist a day you like to your 60 million-plus followers would instantly boost that performer’s profile and download revenue.
Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s great what you did. Most artists are chicken sh*t and terrified of biting the hand that feeds them, so kudos to you for the effort, as every bit helps to level the playing field.
It occurs to me, as I write this, I may come off just a tad bit oppositional, but we actually have a lot in common with regards to this “soapbox” stuff, and, while some might say I lack the credibility and/or experience to wax poetic about politics or the economy, this is the one area where my credentials, albeit long expired, hopefully still qualify me to teach a class at night school on “Music Biz 101.”
For instance, back when folks were just starting to use words like “upload” and “download,” my band, The Rosenbergs, managed to get Universal to change their unfair performance contract with an email, and you got Apple to change its policies with a blog. See? It’s quite similar.
I would go a step further and say we were the quintessential “indie” band, turning down a potential major label deal to try an entirely new business model with King Crimson’s Robert Fripp, in which we retained ownership of our masters.
If you think I may be tooting my own horn a bit here, you’re right. But keep in mind, I was just paid $0.09 for my life’s work, so it evens out.
Looking back, I think our little band from Jersey accomplished quite a bit when it came to helping independent artists everywhere think of themselves as a “business” and not just a “drug-addicted rock star.”
And, with regards to royalties, my testimony on Capitol Hill in front of the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel (CARP) — a pre-cursor to the three-judge panel that now determines royalty percentages for all music licensing — was used to help online broadcasters avoid having to pay billions in back royalties, which, had the labels gotten their way, would’ve immediately bankrupted the entire online streaming universe.
So, although I’m probably the only living participant of those hearings, I’m pretty proud of that.
Believe it or not, to this day, those pesky judges still can’t figure out a stable system of paying artists their fair share across the board.
In fact, between you and me, the rules change so much and so often with regard to performance royalties, no other industry in the world could survive with such chaotic uncertainty and rates that flip-flop every three to four years.
Actually, it’s a miracle there’s any online music at all, especially considering the favorable treatment received by FM and the likes of satellite broadcasters over the likes of streaming services.
But that, too, is a story for another day.
Don’t get me wrong, TS. In spite of all of the above, when all is said and done, I think it’s great what you did and are trying to do. It’s about time independent artists had the support of music “royalty.”
As far as the naysayers, just shake it off.
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