You don’t hear much about a “war on Christmas” this year, but you do hear murmurings about a war on comedy. It’s a loggerheads that has Spotify under scrutiny for removing a significant number of comedy albums from its service, in response to many comics and their reps believing they have a right to the same kind of dual royalties that musicians have always gotten.
Comedy performances already earn royalties from streaming services for the mechanical license — that is, for the actual audio recording. But music, apart from comedy, requires two licenses: one for the recording and one for the song itself. It has long fallen to performance rights organizations like BMI, ASCAP and SESAC to collect those publishing royalties for songwriters. Now, many comedians are contending that they should be treated as singer-songwriters, earning a separate royalty for the underlying “literary work” as well as for the performance of it.
Spotify and other streamers, not surprisingly, have effectively said “Hold on a minute” when it comes to these fresh requests (or demands) for additional royalties, neither outrightly denying or affirming what comedians are asking for, for the time being. But it’s the move that Spotify did make in response to the requests that has stirred ire and made news. And that move was to remove much, or in some cases all, of the recorded work by comedians who are affiliated with the two newish orgs that are looking to collect these additional royalties.
The removal of many of those comedians’ albums was done on or around Thanksgiving eve, in what some might consider the equivalent of a Friday night news dump. But comics are keeping the issue alive into December and will, presumably, beyond.
Stepping into the fray this past week was Lewis Black — currently a Grammy nominee for best comedy album for “Thanks for Risking Your Life.” His catalog was not taken down by Spotify during Thanksgiving week, but on Dec. 12, he publicly requested that the service remove all his recordings from the app, wanting to stand in solidarity with those more affected. (Spotify doesn’t seem to have paid heed to his request; as of Dec. 16, he still has five albums available for streaming there, including the current Grammy nominee.)
The Laugh Button website, a comedy news source, noted the week after Thanksgiving that the quiet removal of albums from Spotify affected “all levels of comedians from working comics to some of the biggest names in the game,” including Jim Gaffigan, John Mulaney, Dave Attell, Mike Birbiglia, Chad Daniels, Tom Segura and Kyle Kinane. Subsequently, the site published a much longer list of comedians whose work it had noticed had gone at least partly missing, including Jeff Foxworthy, Tiffany Haddish, Kevin Hart, Jeff Dunham, Larry the Cable Guy, Patton Oswalt, Bob Newhart, Paula Poundstone, Robin Williams, Amy Schumer, Lisa Lampanelli and many more.
Wrote the Laugh Button: “The comics are stating that when their publishing companies approached Spotify and asked for said royalties, Spotify decided it was easier to remove the albums in question rather than pay comedians what they are legally owed. … Artist publishing is a common practice in the music space, companies like ASCAP and BMI have long collected artist royalties for decades. However, the concept is fairly new to comedy and this event seems to be an inflection point for the industry as billion-dollar streaming platforms might have to reconcile with the idea that they haven’t paid comics accordingly for years.”
What most of the comedians affected have in common is that they are affiliated with Spoken Giants or Word Collections, two rights organizations that have launched to sign up spoken-word artists for literary-work royalties, now or as established in the future.
Spotify pretty much pinned the situation on Spoken Giants in its one public statement on the subject since the controversy arose: “Spotify has paid significant amounts of money for the content in question, and would love to continue to do so. However, given that Spoken Giants is disputing what rights various licensors have, it’s imperative that the labels that distribute this content, Spotify and Spoken Giants come together to resolve this issue to ensure this content remains available to fans around the globe.”
With Spotify unwilling or unlikely to further explain its position in the media, the public conversation has been a one-sided one, with Spoken Giants CEO Jim King making the case that comedians only want the same rights and moneys for their recordings that singer-songwriters have gotten for a century.
It’s not hard to guess, at least, what Spotify’s position might be in this contretemps: that these particular royalties hadn’t been much of a topic of discussion, much less a recognized right, in previous years, and so it wasn’t about to start giving away extra income out of the sheer goodness of its heart without those additional rights being officially established in some way.
The manner in which it responded to Spoken Giants trying to establish these rights, by removing albums en masse and thus putting a halt to any royalties they might generate via Spotify, might seem smartly proactive from a legal standpoint, to some. But to many in the comedy community, it smacks of a kind of union-busting.
“We want comedians to benefit from the exposure Spotify provides and earn royalties for their written work, which is the basis of every great comedy performance,” King said in his own statement. “No one wants to lose Spotify as a platform, we just want to establish that underlying written works in comedy have value.”
King is, not incidentally in all this, a former BMI executive, so he can be sure to press the music analogies as these discussions proceed, or don’t, if a stalemate remains. “Taylor Swift writes her own music; she performs her own music. Those are two different rates, and every platform pays on those two different rates,” King told Vulture. “We have purposely focused on modeling ourselves after the music industry because this is very similar — almost the same as the music industry.”
In a statement to Time magazine about his request to have his own work removed in solidarity, Lewis Black said: “I in no way represent all of the comedians on Spotify but I do believe that all of them should be paid for the writing that they have done and not just for the performance of what they wrote. It has taken a long time for comedy to be recognized as an art form. Therefore, Spotify should recognize that a joke is as powerful as a lyric of a song, which they do pay for. … I need neither the money nor the exposure, but please put all of the comedians back on your platform and let’s sit down and find a way to pay us what we are owed for the words that make you laugh. Yes, a joke is intellectual property.”
What’s at stake for comedians? Not enough that they won’t still have to make most of their money on the road, but for some upper-middle-class or mid-level comics, it could make a difference. In reaction to the current controversy, Kyle Kinane tweeted that streaming revenue for his entire catalog amounts to about $2,000 a month, based on about 180,000 streams. That doesn’t amount to much of a living in and of itself. But if that were doubled — not that anyone would expect literary royalties, which would undoubtedly ramp up over time if enacted, to immediately match performance royalties — that could be enough to be the difference between some working comedians staying in the business or getting out.
What would Spotify and other deep-pocketed services (which have also received the demands, but not removed albums in reply) have to lose by issuing literary-work royalties for comedy albums? Perhaps not much in the overall scheme of things, although acceding to requests for royalties that never previously existed may be seen as a slippery slope to go down. What may be the bigger risk is letting the faceoff go unresolved while maintaining the good will of the comedy community at large, as the service continues to be synonymous with recorded comedy in a big way via its podcast deals with top comics.