Last month, Halsey and Khalid released a new song, “Eastside,” with a silent partner: producer and songwriter Benny Blanco, who’s credited as a third lead artist on the single (and co-stars in its video) even though he doesn’t audibly sing on it. For Blanco, who’s been crafting pop smashes at a steady clip since 2008 for Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, Britney Spears and more, a hit single is nothing new. The only difference this time is his name in lights up front.
This type of producer-first crediting began in hip-hop (from Nineties producers like Pete Rock to contemporary acts like Mike Will Made-It) and dance music (early-2000s crossover house from Basement Jaxx leading into arena-filling producers of the 2010s like Calvin Harris and Diplo). Now it’s taking hold in Top 40 pop: See BloodPop stepping into the credits on singles by Justin Bieber and John Legend, or Andrew Watt on Hailee Steinfeld’s “Let Me Go.” At a time when it’s harder for songwriters to make a living, taking artist credit allows them access to a different source of income. But the top billing is also a reflection of the increased leverage of elite writers whose songs bring billions of streams to major labels.
“Songwriters are reaching for that credit where they may not have before,” says Ross Golan, a veteran writer who has penned hits for Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande. He notes the frequent practice of songwriters singing demos for songs that become hits, or even recording background vocals in the studio: “The amount of times you hear our voices on records quite literally and we don’t get credit, don’t necessarily receive the fruits of our labor – it’s easier for songwriters now to take advantage of what they’re actually providing.”
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The calculations for a modern pop songwriter are fundamentally different than they were ten years ago. “Now more than ever, it’s better to have hits than not have hits,” says Larry Miller, Director of the Music Business Program at New York University’s Steinhardt School. “Streaming is driving two-thirds of the revenue in recorded music, and it’s the most-listened to songs, the top few percent that are driving almost everything.”
Historically, songwriters have earned income from mechanical royalties, which are paid whenever a song is sold or streamed, and performance royalties, which are paid, according to BMI, “when a song is sung or played, recorded or live, on radio and television, as well as through other media such as the Internet, live concerts and programmed music services.”
The business of mechanical royalties has changed for the worse, according to songwriters. In the CD era, 9.1 cents per song per sale went to all writers who appeared on an album. Having a hit single was almost immaterial as long as an album sold well. “If you were selling 10 million albums, that’s $910,000 in revenue split between writers for each song,” Golan explains. “If you got six songs on one of those albums, that was pretty valuable.”
That safety net for songwriters has vanished in the streaming world, because payouts now follow the volume of listening on individual songs. In the Nineties, there was no way to differentiate between tracks that racked up hundreds of repeat listens on an album and tracks that fans skipped over. Now there is, and the ones that are skipped over don’t bring in much income. “If you’re not writing the hit off the album, you’re fucked,” sums up Andrew Watt, who has had a hand in massive singles for DJ Snake and Justin Bieber and Kygo and Selena Gomez.
Some industry figures dispute this characterization, contending that performing rights money is on the rise, partially counterbalancing the decline of mechanical royalties. “Songwriters are earning robust increases in all sorts of licensing areas on top of streaming,” says Barry Massarsky, the president of Massarsky Consulting, a music industry advisory firm. He also notes that earlier this year, the Copyright Royalty Board ruled to raise royalty rates for songwriters by 43.8 percent over the next five years.
But regardless of whether you’re an upper-echelon songwriter living large or a middle-class one struggling to pay rent, the new system encourages writers to “think creatively about how to get more income streams,” says Dae Bogan, Founder and CEO of the music-rights administration platform TuneRegistry.
If songwriters are indeed feeling the crunch, pushing for artist credit when possible is a natural response – it gives them access to money on the master’s side of recordings. Historically, “we get paid on publishing, the the words, the lyrics, the melody, the staff music written on a page,” explains Watt. “The master is the physical recording: Justin Bieber’s voice and DJ Snake’s production on ‘Let Me Love You.’ The master is where the money is. When a song is sold to a label, they buy the master. If the label gives that to an act, they make sure they own part of that master, otherwise in the streaming world, they’re not making any money.”
Now, Bogan says, “songwriters can say, I write hits; this is gonna be a hit for you; I want a piece of the master’s side.” That’s especially true if hit writers are in a position of leverage relative to the singer – “if it’s a young artist or an artist who’s been stagnant.”
This is in some sense a form of poetic justice for writers. “I used to manage songwriters, and we’d write for a number of artists who would demand that they get 10 percent of the publishing even though they didn’t write a single lyric,” Bogan says. “For decades, artists would dip into publishing to diversify their income stream. So now it’s like, let’s take that model and flip it on its head.”
Turning the tables in this fashion is easier in today’s increasingly hit-centric landscape, which promises increased clout and visibility to the most consistently successful writers. Streaming services appear to be actively encouraging this, even as they make it harder for “album cut” songwriters to survive. “With streaming, you really can create a world around the songwriter – Spotify does a good job of this with their Secret Genius playlists,” says Richard Stumpf, CEO of Atlas Music Publishing. (Secret Genius is a program that highlights the work of writers and producers, including Blanco.) Golan points out that YouTube is working to create pages for writers where they can collect all their various songwriting contributions in one place.
In addition, the ease of making and distributing music in the streaming era, combined with the high demand for new content, has helped make old ideas about credits seem outdated. Artists need to be constantly releasing music, and one way to up output is to appear as a featured vocalist — Khalid, for example, has appeared on seven different collaboration records this year in addition to “Eastside.” “It’s a really open time,” says Watt, who also co-wrote “Eastside.” “People consume music so quickly. If they see one of their favorite artists is on a song, Halsey and Khalid fans, they don’t care that Benny’s on the song too.”
Since streaming has helped labels make profits after years of decline, labels also have more latitude at the moment to throw artist deals to talented writers. “It’s so lucrative for labels, they’re willing to invest in a songwriter’s career in a way that they probably wouldn’t have before,” Golan says. Even if a deal like this doesn’t lead to a full-fledged career as an artist – many writers have failed to make the leap – it can help build a writer’s profile. That, in turn, allows the writer access to better opportunities: Surely more people know who BloodPop is now because his name is front and center on a Justin Bieber collaboration. “That gives writers a bit of a brand, which in turn comes with extensions like endorsements,” Stumpf says.
A wave of writers are currently building their public profiles in this fashion. Watt is at work on a collaborator-packed album; his latest single features Post Malone. Golan is putting the finishing touches on a long-gestating album of his own. After a long stint as an in-demand writer, Teddy Geiger also decided to release her first new single as a lead artist in a decade. Emily Warren, Sasha Sloan and JHart have amassed long credit lists in Top 40 pop and are building solo names in parallel.
“Songwriters can stomp and scream and yell about the way things are, and they should,” Golan says. “But while they’re doing that, they should also figure out, what are other ways we can make a living using the tools that we have?”