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SONA Goes to Battle for the Working Songwriter: ‘God Love the Superstars, But This Isn’t About Them’

The ongoing struggle of songwriters to be paid fairly for their work was the rallying point for the Third Annual Songwriters of North America (SONA) Summit at the Village Studios in West Los Angles Wednesday (June 28). The event, which drew 150, did not underplay the regulatory hurdles, but managed to present a largely optimistic picture.

A financial analysis presented by composer Chris Horvath showed how, in short order, the royalty rate for songwriters – which has plunged to fractions of a penny per-play in the streaming era – could reasonably be expected to return to something closer to revenue enjoyed during the go-go days of when CD sales abounded and free radio was the only game in town.

“There’s a lot of doom and gloom, but the transition to digital streaming is a positive thing,” Horvath said, noting that in 2016 more than 50% of music revenue was generated by streaming, with less than a fifth of potential music buyers participating in streaming, leading Horvath to conclude, “There is massive room for growth.”

Starting with a real-world example, Horvath dissected a writer’s statement for a top 10 hit that saw 112 million streams in a three month period, $8,500 for one half-of a successful writing duo. Excluding the publisher’s cut. That translated to .0000076 per stream. “It took me a while to figure out what that number even is – it’s seven one-millionths of a penny,” he said, to groans all around.

Using the same example, Horvath re-ran the numbers for the 15-cent-per-100-streams figure proposed to the Copyright Royalty Board in March, which at 112 million streams translates to about $85,000 for the writers, garnering huge applause.

“While that may seem like a lot of money, you have to consider when you scale this down to your songwriter next door, who doesn’t have a massive hit that gets so many plays,” Horvath told Variety afterwards. “A more modest hit that isn’t a smash might get 2-10 million streams. God love the superstars, but this isn’t about them, this is about the people in this room. The difference between $100,000 and $50,000 is much bigger than the difference between $10 million and $5 million. We need to fix this at the bottom, which will also benefit the people at the top, but the songwriter next door is affected far more.”

Horvath’s went on to speculate “even if we got half of what we’re asking – 7.5 cents (per hundred streams) that would be $42,500, and that’s a good start.” Then, “because I’m conservative,” he halved the figure again, and still got a 250% increase over the seven one-millionths rate. Horvath equated the current state of things with “holding on to real estate during a down market in an area that gets really hot.”

The evening kicked-off with songwriting partners Michelle Lewis and Kay Hanley talking about the history of SONA, which they co-founded in January 2015 after consulting with attorney Dina LaPolt about industry-wide revenue loss. Hanley recounted, “She said, ‘Where have you been? Everybody’s eating your lunch and the songwriters aren’t speaking up for themselves. You guys need to do something!” The duo recruited 100 SONA members in six weeks and with LaPolt’s help took on an ambitious regulatory initiative.

In addition to ongoing lobbying efforts with ASCAP, BMI and other creators groups, SONA has had some significant achievements in the past year. In March, Lewis was elected to the ASCAP board of directors,  and in September, led by LaPolt and the New York-based Gerard Fox Law, SONA sued the U.S. Department of Justice.

The group is holding its own in federal court in D.C. as the DOJ attempts to have it dismissed. LaPolt gave a rundown on legislative initiatives, stressing the importance of BMI’s lawsuit against the DOJ to have its 100% licensing interpretation of the consent decree overturned. (In September, BMI prevailed, but the DOJ is appealing.” The battle is intense and ongoing, and LaPolt grew visibly moved as she thanked attendees Steven Wallach from Fox Law and her firm’s John Meller.

The evening included performances by singer-songwriters Priscilla Renea and Dave Bassett who brought the house down with passionate, solo renditions of some of their best-known work, in Renea’s case, “California King,” and Bassett’s “Fight Song” and “Ex’s and Oh’s.”

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