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Threats, Bullying and Misinformation: Inside Spotify’s Battle With Songwriters

Songwriters and publishers are in an ongoing cold war with Spotify, which is fighting against increasing their pay

An Android smartphone with the Spotify Music logo visible on screen, alongside a pair of earphones, taken on February 7, 2019. (Photo by Olly Curtis/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Spotify's battle with songwriters over royalty rates has intensified in recent months, as a long-simmering cold war heats up.

Olly Curtis/Future Publishing/Getty Images

Songwriters usually operate out of the public eye: Even when creating inescapable hits that charge up the charts, they rarely leave the studio. But earlier this month, writers angrily stepped into the spotlight. In an open letter to Spotify, a group of hitmakers spanning generations and genres, from pop-R&B legend Babyface to country stalwart Shane McAnally, declared themselves “hurt and disappointed.” “Do the right thing,” they instructed Spotify, “and drop your appeal of the Copyright Royalty Board rate determination.”

This open letter is the latest escalation in what more than a dozen songwriters and publishers describe to Rolling Stone as an ongoing cold war with Spotify, which is battling them over their second meaningful pay increase in more than a century. In March, Spotify, Amazon, Pandora and Google appealed a ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board, which voted to increase the amounts that songwriters make from interactive streaming by more than 40 percent over five years. In a statement, Spotify, Google and Pandora wrote that the raise “harms both music licensees and copyright owners.”

Writers and publishers are understandably angry, and they are especially frustrated with Spotify, which they accuse of betrayal of trust, “bullying the little man [and woman],” and, behind the scenes, spreading misinformation and even intimidation. Spotify declined to comment. 

The rupture between the songwriting community and Spotify comes abruptly after the two groups worked together to pass the Music Modernization Act last September, which the Recording Academy hailed as “the most sweeping music copyright reform since the 8-track tape era.” Before that bill was signed into law in October, the Copyright Royalty Board — a government body that sets the statutory licensing terms for songs registered under U.S. law — voted to give songwriters a raise. Rulings from the board can be appealed, though, and once the MMA became a reality, all the streaming services except Apple Music decided to object to paying songwriters more money.

While Spotify didn’t act alone, its decision to appeal the CRB ruling stung particularly deeply in the songwriting community, which had come to regard the platform as an ally in a largely hostile streaming world. According to one member of the songwriting community who agreed to speak only on condition of anonymity, “No one ever expected YouTube, Amazon or Pandora to care about songwriter royalties or raising the rates — in the history of this, they’ve always fought to lower the rates and have never been friends of writers and publishers.”

Spotify, in contrast, “has taken great pains to ingratiate themselves with the songwriting community recently,” according to a music industry executive who has had extensive dealings with the streaming service but was not authorized to speak publicly. “Not just with the Secret Genius awards [which elevated writers and producers whose songs were streaming hits] — they put up enormous amounts of resources to put songwriter credits on their service.” As a result, another hit-writer says, Spotify’s action “hurts differently.”   

“The writers are getting paid the least” – Richard Stumpf, CEO of Atlas Music Publishing

In a blog post from Spotify explaining its appeal, the service said it actually supported songwriters earning more money — just not in the manner laid out by the CRB. “Music services, artists, songwriters and all other rights-holders share the same revenue stream, and it’s natural for everyone to want a bigger piece of that pie,” Spotify wrote. “But that cannot come at the expense of continuing to grow the industry via streaming.” And it’s true that the industry is again enjoying years of consecutive growth after a long period of downturn, largely thanks to streaming services like Spotify.

But songwriters say they shouldn’t be the ones to suffer for growth, since they are already facing tough economic conditions. “The writers are getting paid the least,” says Richard Stumpf, CEO of Atlas Music Publishing. “If you look at the pie as 100, the label’s taking 59, Spotify’s taking 29, while the publishing side’s only getting 12.” “Unlike labels or artists, [songwriters] live under a compulsory license, so we can’t say no [to the streaming services],” adds David Israelite, president and CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association, which represents publishers and their songwriter partners. “Three judges [who sit on the CRB] tell us the value of our songs. All we can do is fight within the system we’re forced to live under.”

But even their ability to fight under those constraints is hampered, they say, by the concentrated power of the streaming services. “A lot of people don’t want to be involved because of the possibility of retaliation,” says the music industry executive. “If Spotify is at the table, you have to always wear kid gloves.” This fear is reflected in the list of signees: As impressive as the names on the open letter are, there are still many prominent writers missing — you won’t find several of the people responsible for this week’s 20-biggest hits (Ryan Tedder and Benny Blanco, for example, who both did not respond to requests for comment). And of course, many artists are writers, too, but the artist community has largely stayed out of this battle.

Some in the music industry believe that fears of retaliation are far-fetched — writers are oversensitive; too much of playlist placement is determined by algorithms. But the member of the writing community who pointed out the services’ opposition to songwriter raises alleges that an unnamed Spotify employee issued a threat over the phone in March, describing the Spotify employee’s message as: “If you are a part of any anti-Spotify campaigns which we know are brewing, then you need to know that marketing dollars will not be spent to support you.” (Spotify denied that the company said this.)

“The truth of the situation was misrepresented to the benefit of Spotify’s perspective,” says one hit-making songwriter

Another member of the songwriting community also heard this report. “I know the story about the inference that was made — if they spoke up against Spotify, Spotify might take a view on where they would spend their marketing dollars,” he says. “That’s an exceedingly stupid thing for somebody to say. I know a couple of Spotify executives know about it. The people I know who know about it were mortified and embarrassed.” With stories like this in circulation, it makes sense that even as the songwriters’ open letter to Spotify was in the works last week, nearly everyone who spoke for this story did so on the condition of anonymity.

Since the non-Apple streaming services announced their decision to appeal the CRB’s ruling, Spotify’s relationship with songwriters has become only more strained. Israelite says Spotify’s blog post was “filled with lies and attempts to confuse and misdirection and spin.” So the NMPA hit back with its own meticulously truculent counter-post, challenging Spotify’s statement line by line.

While Spotify was making public statements about its intentions, the company approached a number of songwriters, especially those who had been feted as Secret Geniuses and celebrated with billboards, parties and playlists collecting their hits, to start private conversations. “They called a lot of us directly trying to convince us to put down our weapons,” explains a second frustrated hit-writer. “I was misled in the communication. The truth of the situation was misrepresented to the benefit of Spotify’s perspective.”

Spotify has a songwriter-relations team that is in regular contact with the writing community. But the Secret Genius reach-out was perceived by some as a divide-and-conquer approach. “They try to put their arm around us and say, ‘It’s one big industry, we’re all friends,’ and then they go try and split off key songwriters,” says another music industry executive who deals often with Spotify. “That doesn’t work.”

Songwriters say Spotify asked them to participate in town hall-style meetings. “The response of the songwriters was they wouldn’t participate unless the NMPA was also allowed to participate so they could hear a back and forth,” Israelite says. “Writers aren’t necessarily in the weeds; they’re not all attorneys. When that happened, Spotify went dark.”

Despite this seemingly cold shoulder, the NMPA and the Nashville Songwriters Association International decided to carry on with town halls — with or without Spotify’s presence. The first took place last week in Nashville. The NMPA invited all the streaming services to make their case. But in another bit of strategic maneuvering that doubled as a slap in the face, none of the streaming services showed up. Writers and publishers were left to rail helplessly against an absent enemy.

The CRB’s rate increase is already in effect. However, “if there’s an appeal that’s pending, that appeal could be applied retroactively, which means that the increase in rates that songwriters are entitled to, they might owe back,” Israelite says. This, in turn, “means publishers are likely going to have to escrow that money during the appeal. Songwriters are not going to enjoy the rate increase during the appeal, which is unfair and unfortunate.”

And that’s part of the reason some writers worry their relationship with Spotify is permanently ruptured. “Appeals take a long time,” one says. “If it takes a year, whether they win or don’t win, [our relationship with the streaming service] can’t be repaired.”

Some in the songwriting community still hope Spotify will drop its opposition to the CRB’s ruling, even as it claims it’s only acting for the good of the industry.They’re blaming [their stance] on writers, blaming it on Apple, blaming it on record labels,” one writer says. “But I think the person who’s blaming that many people probably should look in the mirror.”

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