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The Song Economy Part 3 – creating in the song economy

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Photo of Keith Jopling
by Keith Jopling

In ‘The Song Economy is just getting started’ I looked at how major catalogue songs such as Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, Toto’s Africa and Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You had all spent many years accumulating streams (audio and video), radio plays and ultimately for their copyright owners, revenues. In ‘Part 2 - making songs even bigger’ I looked at how marketing has evolved around the song and how songs’ managers and marketers can go even further. 

Now, in this final part of the series, I look at creators in the song economy and how songwriters and artists are thinking about how to get their music heard in the new music industry. I have recruited some special help in the form of viewpoints from three creators: 

  • mxmtoon (also known as Maia, a singer-songwriter from Oakland, California, who has six million monthly Spotify listeners and 300 million streams. Her debut album, the masquerade, was released in September 2019, and the two part EP release dawn is now released. She makes the podcast 21 Days with mxmtoon on Spotify)

  • Björn Ulvaeus (Swedish songwriter, producer, member of ABBA, co-composer of the musicals Chess and Mamma Mia! and current president of CISAC)

  • Helienne Lindvall (songwriter and musician who writes for and with recording artists on both sides of the Atlantic, including Roger Sanchez, Jorgen Elofsson, The Dark Tenor, Dani Senior and Menrva and is a member of the Board of the Ivors Academy based in London)

I asked all three the same set of questions, all related to the challenges and opportunities of creating music in an environment dominated by streaming and where the next song matters above all else. 

Q: What is the best route to making a living as a songwriter in the Song Economy?

mxmtoon: Find ways to monetize! Whether it’s YouTube videos, subscriptions on Twitch streaming, collecting on stream royalties, all of this adds up in the end. So be mindful of what areas you’re venturing into and try to make sure you’re collecting!

Björn: Since I was elected President of CISAC in April I’ve been reaching out to songwriters trying to learn what it’s like to be one today. Much harder than when I started, that’s for sure. I was very lucky to have two mentors when I had my first hit in 1963. One was a music publisher and the other a record producer. They taught me that the whole music industry is revolving around the song. I think that’s still true, although not reflected in royalties. One thing I’ve noticed is that creators today have to be much more commercial in every way and the writing seems to have to happen at great speed.  Once our royalties started coming in Benny Andersson and I could concentrate on songwriting and songwriting only for maybe 4 – 5 months a year, 7 hours a day. On average 14 songs a year. That’s a lot of not-good-enough stuff down the drain and it’s how you get sharp and recognize the good stuff when it chooses to appear. I wish there was a way to create that kind of environment for songwriters today.

Helienne: Firstly, work to become a great writer by finding your own voice as a writer, what makes you unique as a songwriter. Secondly, learn how to produce. You're more likely to make a living if you have the added skill and produce the songs you write. You will also then be more likely to get pulled in to album projects by writing with the artists, which vastly increases your chances of getting cuts on the final album. It also means that you will get points on the master and an upfront payment, unlike topliners. Having a song selected as a single increases the chances of having a record that gets played on the radio – and that will make you okay money. The chances of a songwriter making any real money from just streaming are incredibly slim. You need tens of millions of streams. Concentrate on getting syncs and I'd suggest you also diversify into library music, if possible. 

Q. What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for songwriters?

mxmtoon: Honestly I think the biggest challenge I personally face is writer’s block. Creatives put an enormous amount of pressure on themselves to be creative on demand, and that’s just not how it works. Give yourself a break and make art when you feel inspired to do so. Sometimes there will be long in-between periods, but that’s okay. Opportunities will come as you present authentic work to the world!

Björn: To find someone with experience, whom you learn to trust and who will listen to your songs and guide you. That’s what a good music publisher is supposed to do. The biggest opportunity under the present system, with the split between artist and songwriters, is definitely to be both. 

Helienne: The biggest opportunities are that there is more music being released than ever, which means it's easier to get your music out there – and it's cheaper than ever to record a decent sounding record. The biggest challenge is that all this music is vying for people's attention. Accumulating enough streams to get paid anything close to what we got paid in the physical and downloading world is incredibly difficult. You'd be shocked if you saw the royalty statements of some writers of songs that are in today's top 20. The streaming economy is a winner-takes-all for songwriters. It's almost impossible to survive solely on being a topliner. The core problem is the lopsided distribution of streaming royalties. The song only gets about 13% of the "revenue pie", with the publishers taking 20-50% of that. This means that the songwriters have to divide about 6.5-10% of the "pie" between them. Meanwhile the DSP gets 30% and the label about 57%. Meanwhile the number of writers per top 100 song increases every year. 

Q: Is it possible to compete as a sole songwriter in today’s industry? 

Is co-writing essential? 

mxmtoon: Co-writing is not essential, not at all! I think there are pros and cons to being a solo writer or working with other people, but I don’t think it’s required. It’s a wonderful tool to add to your capabilities as an artist but never something that someone should feel the need to do. 

Björn: I think it is. If you can bounce ideas off someone you trust. I’ve never understood how you can be three or more though, but two seems ideal - if you have the same frames of reference and can bounce back and forth. You have to know that your partner is brutally honest, that way you avoid garbage. Both have to like a musical idea, otherwise it doesn’t make it through. 

Helienne: Well, it's almost unheard of for a non-performing songwriter to have 100% of a top 100 record today. Even Diane Warren, who is probably the most successful sole non-performing pop songwriter in recent memory, is now co-writing. Max Martin wrote ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’ on his own, but these days all Max’s hits are co-written. Many songwriters won't go in the studio for a co-write unless the artist is involved in the writing too, as it increases the chances of getting a cut exponentially. More and more, the credits and percentages are all the result of tough negotiations, usually decided less based on the actual contribution and more on the power of the writer and their manager.

Are songwriters more tempted now to become performers?

Helienne: Yes. This is why an increasing number of songs have multiple featured performers. As a featured performer one gets a share of the master, which can mean a five to ten-fold increase in revenue from streaming – as well as radio play. Note for example how Benny Blanco has his own artist page on Spotify and has feature credits on songs that he isn't performing on. Are songwriters attempting to claim a production credit and masters points? That's definitely an increasing trend. Topliners are increasingly asking for vocal production credits too. Some songwriter managers are now adding 20% on top of the producer fee, which then gets distributed to the non-performer topliners. Many songwriters are now asking for masters points (out of the label master share and not the artist share of the master). It's also important that any points awarded are not relying on recoupment. 

Björn: Of course they are tempted. To survive. A good singer/songwriter doesn’t have to be cute so looks don’t hold you back so much. On the other hand, a pop group that doesn’t include good songwriters is very vulnerable. Some artists become successful with other people’s songs and after a while often think they can write themselves. That seldom works, so yes, they will have to collaborate. Collaborations will continue to increase. 

mxmtoon: I think that there are different ways to make your path happen. Sometimes there will be people who gravitate to working behind the scenes in a writing environment, and those who like to be the face of a project as well. The most amazing part to me, in terms of how the music industry has shifted, is that either role can decide how much of performance or writing they want to do. People have more control over their destiny.

In Summary

The responses intrigued me a lot, with wisdom offered by all. Björn Ulvaeuswas offering the benefit of experience from someone with an enormous legacy in pop songs, but mxmtoon reveals a philosophical wisdom after just one album. It’s a characteristic I have sensed from young creators starting out in today’s music business – listen and learn from who you can but forge your own path and know your own mind. Meanwhile, Helienne Lindvall reveals the complexities under the surface for making a living as a non-performer’s writer, a tougher and tougher arena as team sizes increase on hit songs (the average is four writers for a top 10 hit song in 2020). As she also told me: “As the fight for songwriters to get a larger ‘slice of the streaming pie’ is an uphill battle that will take a long time, all the above are attempts to increase the share in a roundabout way, a temporary band-aid to help songwriters survive until there is a more structured way for them to get an equitable share of revenues”. 

This final quote is revealing of the harder edged side to the current business for many songwriters and it’s something MIDiA explores in some depth for a forthcoming analysis on the Song Economy. 

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