Molly Neuman is the President of Songtrust. She has previously held leadership roles at Kickstarter, A2IM, Rhapsody, and eMusic. She is on the Advisory Boards of Music Business Association, Women in Music, and has previously served on the boards of SoundExchange and A2IM. Her career in music began as the drummer in the ’90s indie band Bratmobile.
Throughout my music career, which goes back to the early 1990’s, I’ve experienced numerous shifts in the ways that the music industry operates, witnessing these changes from the perspective of a songwriter, performer, label owner, and industry executive. I’ve often considered how companies that embrace the hard work that musicians and songwriters might not want to do themselves can provide value and health to our industry.
About 30 years ago, I played my first rock show at a club in Olympia, Washington, with my band, Bratmobile. In addition to playing in Bratmobile, my best friend Allison and I were also working on a fanzine, a radio show, and providing other bands with a place to stay and a meal when they toured through our college town. Our creative focus was energized by the relatively few women we saw playing in bands, putting on shows, running labels, and producing records. We were starving for more role models and realized that we had to be a part of the solution and do it ourselves.
DIY is not my favorite term – it feels marginalized in today’s environment – but it truly was the ethos we subscribed to. Our favorite bands, Fugazi and Beat Happening, had members who started their own labels to release their records, and those labels, Dischord and K respectively, turned into independent forces. However, this model was tremendously difficult to operate. The distribution infrastructure in place was difficult to tap into and producing physical products is inherently risky due to the upfront capital investments required and the expense and difficulty of inventory management.
The ‘90s were glorious in their excess and abundance. CD sales had high margins, and the A&R scramble to find the next Green Day, Nirvana, or Pearl Jam was in full tilt. New platforms for visibility like MTV and concert DVDs asked for gratis music licenses, and independents were able to rationalize these as valuable ways to connect with new audiences. Independent labels like the one I ran could compete if we had the distribution path, as chain stores like Tower and Virgin brought in enough stock to meet on-hand minimums and kept the inventory moving. In this context, the risks felt manageable and sales were steady. Between touring, independent shops, and a few forward-thinking chains, new bands starting out could expect to sell a certain amount of CDs. The economics worked — until they didn’t.
What I’ve just described was an ecosystem with limited tiers of access. The path to success was severely limited by gatekeepers like labels, distributors, radio programmers, MTV, and more – and for many independent musicians and songwriters, doing it alone was simply not possible.
Many of the challenges I faced as a musician and label owner earlier in my career are now mostly alleviated for modern musicians who have access to powerful, global, and autonomous solutions that are creating significantly healthier segments of our industry. These same tools have serious potential for improving music’s bleak gender equity, as well as diversity and inclusion for all groups across the independent sector.
In July 2020, Rolling Stone published the top 100 songs and albums of the year to that point, with only 19 songs and 17 albums by women. In August 2020, the UK Collective Women In CTRL published a report on the gender breakdown of songwriters and producers in the UK Top 100 radio chart, and found that only 20% of the songwriters were women or non-binary, and just 3% (!!) of the producers were women. On March 8th, the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released its new report, which found that women represented only 21.6% of all artists on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts across the past nine years – 20.2% in 2020.
While these numbers are bleak, the fact that these data analyses are being commissioned and published at all tells our industry what we’ve been fighting for since the early ‘90s — we need more women’s voices. Period. The imbalance right now has real economic impact, and we have not yet seen concrete research on what that has meant in terms of lost dollar value to women creators.
I am excited that we’re seeing more initiatives from trade organizations and other groups focused on helping BIPOC-, LGBTQ+- and women-owned businesses develop. I’m so glad that we’re starting to see more diversity and inclusion among those who are starting management companies, labels, music publishing companies, and producing and mastering records.
In my work at Songtrust, I am focused on the creative autonomy and leverage generated by musicians and songwriters. Creator platforms and business management products that were truly unimaginable before are enabling musicians to have control over their work and its destiny on a global scale. It might be hard to recognize how truly transformative these tools have been, but the data are clear — according to MIDiA, independents grew market share from 28.3% in 2018, to 31.1% in 2020. In terms of revenue, artist-direct revenue increased 28% and non-Merlin independents grew by 49% from 2018 to 2020.
The autonomy, independence, and earnings potential the Creator Services sector affords musicians around the world is powerful, but particularly so for women and underrepresented creators who are increasingly able to create their own success playing by their own rules.
This of course won’t solve all of our industry’s challenges. The competitive landscape of tens of thousands of new songs added to streaming services everyday is exhausting to contemplate, especially as an individual creator trying to be heard. The sheer volume, plus the difficulties around accurate metadata, splits, fraud, and unaligned databases on a global level is a huge challenge. Tackling these most complex and laborious issues is key, because solving these problems is essential to the well-being and equity of opportunity for music creators.
I dream about a world of balanced leverage and balanced opportunities, one where artists, songwriters, and other music creators can create based on their own values, present their work to the world, promote it, and receive every royalty owed to them in the most accurate manner possible. It’s a world where creators are able to consider other options based on information, experience, and confidence, not desperation. I want this for all creators, from every dimension of diversity. I know it’s possible, and I can’t wait to listen to that music.
Songtrust is the world’s largest technology solution for global music publishing royalty collection and administration. Songtrust’s core mission is to help musicians, publishers, labels, and distributors easily track and collect global publishing royalties for their music catalogs. Songtrust administers more than 3,000,000 songs and represents more than 350,000 songwriters.