As an elite pop songwriter, Emily Warren breathes rarified air — she’s co-written several songs with more than a billion streams each on Spotify alone, including Dua Lipa’s “Don’t Start Now” and “New Rules” and the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” But Warren still found herself in an uncomfortable situation last year: A high-powered singer was demanding a “crazy” fraction of publishing — the income that writers earn from creating the lyrics and melodies for songs — in exchange for recording a tune penned by Warren, even though that artist had not contributed to the writing process in any way.
When Warren tried to negotiate a fairer deal, that artist turned to what she describes as “bully tactics and threats.” “I’m down to stand my ground,” she continues, “but if I can’t say no at my position, then baby writers with less leverage have no shot.”
This experience helped spur a call for collective action via an open letter from members of the songwriting community this week. The document, dubbed the Pact, declares that those who sign “will not give publishing or songwriting credit to anyone who did not create or change the lyric or melody or otherwise contribute to [a] composition without a reasonably equivalent/meaningful exchange for all the writers on the song.” Warren signed it, as did a slew of sought-after writers, including Justin Tranter, Victoria Monet, Ross Golan, Tayla Parx, Savan Kotecha, Amy Allen, and more.
“If we can all join together, A) we have leverage, and B) the threat [artists] use — ‘we’ll go find another song if you don’t agree to this’ — can be removed,” Warren says.
“I understand we’re in a business, but part of business is not extorting your peers,” Golan tells Rolling Stone. “Songwriters are gonna start protecting their copyright, or we’re gonna get angry and we’re gonna get loud.”
The Pact is the latest bid for economic justice from songwriters in a streaming landscape that has, as Tranter puts it, “completely decimated the middle class” of the writing community due to low per-stream payouts. The way the system is designed, labels and artists make more money than writers from streaming, and artists can also supplement that income by playing shows, selling T-shirts, and campaigning for brands.
None of those avenues are available to the vast majority of professional songwriters, who work to craft hits behind the scenes but can often walk into a bar without being recognized. “I think we may be in a situation in less than five years where we have no non-performing songwriters,” says Alastair Webber, who co-founded the independent label and publishing company The Other Songs, which pays its writers more liberally than the industry standard. “They simply won’t be able to make enough money.”
Despite this imbalance between artists and composers, the practice of singers dipping into songwriters’ wallets — which is about as old as the modern music industry — persists. “It’s pretty much standard now,” says one A&R from a publishing company who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Almost every artist demands publishing from the writers’ side, and I think it’s unfair because they aren’t doing the work beyond their vocals.”
Warren, who works primarily in the pop space, believes that the practice has “gotten worse” in recent years. Partially because songwriters have been fighting to raise awareness about what they do, she says, “people have started to care a lot more, checking Wikipedia or the song credit feature on Spotify [which started in 2018]. As that started to get highlighted, I think artists wanted to be credited” more.
Publishing executives say superstar artists may demand between 20% and 35% of writing income on songs they didn’t help compose; one A&R calls it a”toll” for recording the songs. Shy Martin, a Swedish songwriter whose compositions have been streamed over 3 billion times collectively, says in some cases she has encountered acts asking for as much as 50% of the publishing from songs they didn’t write.
It’s hard to find a professional songwriter who hasn’t capitulated to demands like this at one point, even though it means that the writers end up earning less from their efforts than the artist does for just showing up. “In the beginning of your career, you want to take every opportunity you can,” Martin says. “And I didn’t know that I had a choice. In some cases, people would say, ‘You should be thankful for us wanting to release your song, and if you don’t agree to this, we won’t release it.'”
In an industry that runs on these sorts of ultimatums, the A-list writers who signed the Pact hope their support can provide cover for their younger peers to do the same. “A lot of the songwriters [who signed the document already] are big enough to operate without that fear” of retaliation for speaking up, Tranter says. “We’re going to step into this with big hearts and middle fingers blazing.”
But even with the release of the Pact, songwriters are tiptoeing on a tightrope — while they’re trying to stand up for their rights, they’re careful not to name any artists guilty of engaging in this behavior, wary of shaming a powerful constituency.
Lucas Keller, whose company Milk & Honey manages more than 80 writer and producer clients, says he is “100% for the Pact” as long as it doesn’t hurt yet another constituency: producers, who get paid according to different rules. And while Keller notes that “artists who don’t write should not get publishing,” he points out that by far the largest chunk of streaming income goes to labels. “How do we get the labels to pay more?” he wonders.
But the writers who spoke for this story are hoping to avoid any zero-sum brinkmanship with other powerful industry players. To that end, songwriters who support the Pact stress that it does not even rule out working with artists who demand publishing on something they didn’t write. Those writers just ask for some sort of “compensation” if they sacrifice a percentage of their primary income stream. “If you’re trying to take something,” Tranter says, “we want something in return.”