Networks Need to Stop Shaking Down Music Composers (Guest Column)

"Should music creators refuse to ‘revenue share,’ they could be barred from the networks with whom they do business," writes NMPA's CEO.

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This week, the Production Music Association will hold its annual conference in Los Angeles. Production music represents a significant yet often overlooked segment of the music industry.

The PMA conference will bring together hundreds of songwriters and composers to talk about making music for television and film. These brilliant creators make the music that brings motion pictures and your favorite television shows to life. However, their livelihood is currently is being threatened by a disturbing trend among major studios and networks who are using their market power to demand unreasonable and morally-questionable compromises from the composers on which they rely – and who have very little leverage to fight back.

For context, one must understand that production music companies are mostly small businesses – individual composers and songwriters – who depend on synchronization and performance revenue to survive. These creators are already at a huge disadvantage when it comes to bargaining with the ever-consolidating multi-national film studios and conglomerate cable and broadcast networks that use their music in myriad movies, shows and spin-offs.

Instead of simply paying a reasonable license fee for the music they want to use, some networks have begun demanding that composers give them what amounts to kickbacks in order to use their work – contractually requiring that the network gets a percentage of the downstream public performance revenue of the song. This predatory practice threatens to wipe out many struggling production music composers and companies.

Legal issues aside, what’s concerning is the propriety of holding composers hostage to a morally troubling choice. If a composer wants a major network – with enormous market power – to use their work on any of their channels or programs, they are being told they essentially have to allow them to take partial credit for it. Again, what’s being required isn’t just a cut of composers’ money, its part-ownership of the composition itself.

This demand of sharing future payments that are meant for the creator in order to continue doing business is a practice not looked kindly upon in American commerce or by American consumers.  It is akin to a recording artist taking credit for writing a song when the artist had no part of the creative process. What’s worse, the networks and motion picture studios demanding this ‘credit’ are creators themselves who should understand the systematic degradation of a creator’s rights that this practice has put in motion.

Should music creators refuse this type of ‘revenue share,’ they could be barred from the networks with whom they must do business to survive. Being asked to sacrifice their rights to their own songs permanently, as well as part of their profits, for their work to be considered by certain companies is a form of Big Media bullying, and it pits small songwriters against Goliath companies with which they have no ability to truly bargain.

This type of abuse couldn’t happen at a worse time. Requiring revenue shares as a condition of being permitted to license music with a studio or network stacks the deck against songwriters who are already struggling to survive in the digital age which has greatly devalued music in general.

The television and film industries must examine just what is being asked of working production music composers and companies in order for their music to used. If this trend continues – it will result in a mutually destructive conflict between creators and network and studio heads. In this Golden Age of Television and as people consume more movies and shows than ever before, music has never been more central to the appeal of great drama. It would be tragic for the rise of such immense creativity to not translate to the rise of great composers, and instead to their demise.

As networks consolidate, the small-business songwriter is at more and more of a disadvantage, and while the studio and network bosses may be able to get away with strong arming them, it certainly does not mean that they should.

David Israelite is the President and CEO of the National Music Publishers’ Association (NMPA). Founded in 1917, NMPA is the trade association representing all American music publishers and their songwriting partners.