Nashville songwriters turned out in force on Wednesday afternoon to escalate the fight against four music-streaming services on royalty rates. Earlier this year, Spotify, Amazon, Google and SiriusXM/Pandora announced they would appeal a 2018 ruling from the Copyright Royalty Board — the government body that sets royalty rates for statutory licenses — that would see publishers’ and songwriters’ cuts of revenue rise by 44% over the next five years. The four services have disputed the decision and asked for a lower rate increase, rankling the songwriting community, which is especially taking issue with Spotify’s involvement.
“Spotify is the face of this fight because, of the companies that are appealing, two of them, Google and Pandora, came to us and said, ‘We don’t want to appeal. If our competitors appeal, we will feel the need to join to protect our own business, but we’re not going to appeal,'” says David Israelite, the CEO of the National Music Publishers Association, who presented the town hall-style event with Nashville Songwriters Association International. “We further heard that Spotify was the one telling people, ‘If we do it as a group, they can’t single any one of us out.’ They were the ringleader.”
Israelite, along with NSAI’s Bart Herbison and songwriters Liz Rose, Lee Thomas Miller and Steve Bogard, NSAI’s president of the board, spoke with Rolling Stone after the town hall and Q&A session, which, held at Music City club Third & Lindsley, felt at times more like a rally and indictment of Spotify — a company that many songwriters as well as recording artists had previously regarded as one of the most industry-sympathetic of the digital music services. Both seating and parking were scarce, with notable songwriters like Rose, Buddy Cannon and Bob DiPiero in the estimated audience of 300. According to NSAI, 3,500 more watched the town hall via Livestream.
“You should be insulted,” Herbison told the assembled songwriters from the stage, where four chairs were arranged in a row with placards for Spotify, Amazon, Google and Pandora. Representatives for each streaming service were invited to attend, but none did.
Herbison railed against Spotify and pointed out the increasing support for the songwriters’ cause in Nashville, noting that the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp. canceled a planned ad buy with the streaming powerhouse as a show of solidarity with the city’s songwriters. “The Nashville songwriting community is this city’s soul and they are at the heart of almost all of our messaging and success. While we loved the uniqueness of the Spotify campaign we were planning, it was an easy decision to drop the program in support of our songwriter friends,” Butch Spyridon, CEO of the NCVC, confirmed to Rolling Stone in an email.
Herbison also pointed out a new resolution introduced on Tuesday by Metro Nashville Councilman Jeff Syracuse, who called for all streaming companies that are appealing the CRB’s rate increase to drop the appeals. Syracuse voted against millions of dollars in incentives for Amazon, who have plans to open a regional headquarters in Nashville, because of their involvement in the CRB appeal.
It was Israelite, however, who offered the most sharp skewering of Spotify, delivering a point-by-point rebuttal of the service’s March 11th “What You Need to Know” posting about the appeal. It was that blog, as Israelite calls it, that started the firestorm. “The writers saw through that. It was meant to trick them, and try to deceive them, and the reaction to that was so intense,” he says.
“People are pissed,” adds Herbison, who says the end goal is nothing short of Spotify and the other three services — which does not include Apple Music — dropping the appeal. “That’s part of the message today: we’re in it for the long haul. Songwriters historically create the product which keeps everybody rich, with the least pay, so we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve been fighting this fight for a century and we’re going to fight it until we don’t have to.”
According to Bogard, it’s not just the songwriters’ livelihood that is in jeopardy. “If you lose the songwriter that doesn’t perform, you lose the performer that doesn’t write songs,” he says, highlighting the songwriter-artist arrangement that is so prevalent in Nashville, where country-radio stars rarely write their own hits alone.
“The songs you hear on the radio are mostly songs about the lives of us,” says Miller. “We walk into those rooms with, ‘Guess what happened at my house today? Guess what my wife said?’ And then we write a song for that artist about that story.”
“Every songwriter in the world needs to know what’s going on,” says Rose, who has written hits for Taylor Swift, Little Big Town and Carrie Underwood. “I worry about young songwriters. Think about if Kris Kristofferson were 20 years old today.”
A rep for Spotify did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
A Los Angeles town hall is scheduled for May 13th.