Songwriters were having a beef with Spotify before beefing with Spotify was cool, and representatives from several writers’ groups renewed their effort to train attention on the digital service provider’s payouts to tunesmiths with a demonstration in front of Spotify’s former headquarters on Sunset Blvd. Monday.
The rally was sponsored by the 100 Percenters, a group formed in mid-2020 to especially bring in BIPOC writers to join the struggle to get royalty increases from the DSPs and spotlight what they see as other unfair practices in the music industry. The three dozen or so demonstrators also included members of SONA (Songwriters of North America) and other like-minded lobbying and activist groups.
Some of the signs were a mouthful to read for drivers speeding past the Beverly Hills border into West Hollywood, but many cars slowed down to register and honk approval of the protest. “Dear Spotify: Reallocate your billion $ marketing budget to the music creators who built you!” read a placard held up by Kaydence, who’s cowritten songs like Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” and Beyonce’s “Black Parade.” Among the other signs of the minuscule-royalty times: “No budget? No bops,” “Would you work for free?” and “We write the music that you fall in love to! #Paywriters.”
The founder of the 100 Percenters, Tiffany Red, has written songs for Zendaya, NCT, Jason Derulo, Jennifer Hudson, Tamar Braxton, “Star” and “Empire.” Standing streetside, she said the thinks everyone in the music industry is well aware of the issues involved in advocating for what she considers a small raise for songwriters, and it’s time to now take it to the streets with protests to educate the public, with this being possibly the first of many demonstrations.
Their message is “that we’re not making a livable wage, that we have families too, and we can’t afford to pay our bills because the system, like many systems in our country, is archaic. For the last two years we’ve been campaigning about this and the industry hears us, but I want the people who are on TikTok dancing to their next song to understand that many of the people behind the songs that are trending and providing the soundtrack to everyone’s lives aren’t making money and can’t pay their rent tomorrow.”
Red said that the protest was specific to Spotify because of its key role in an upcoming appeal filed to the Copyright Royalty Board to overturn a royalty increase for songwriters. Spotify, she said, is “one of the main DSPs that appealed our pay raise of 44%, which in the grand scheme of things, really, is nothing in the first place. A 44% pay increase from 0.003%? It’s like, just let us live. No, they want to fight us about that too. So we thought we’d show up, talk about it a little bit and help the consumers who only see the elite on TV and don’t realize the music industry has a middle class of people that look like them.”
As for why the 100 Percenters and friends were demonstrating at a location Spotify long since vacated (the high-rise is now known mostly as the home of Soho House), Red said it was partly to have an attention-getting “disruptive” presence at a high-profile intersection. But there were other symbolic factors as well. “We came here because we wanted to start where they started. So the next place is downtown,” where Spotify currently is located — although employees have been working from home during the pandemic. A march through downtown starting at Spotify HQ there is planned for late March, going into the Grammys. “We were the ones that helped them move from here, where they had about 9200 square feet, to this big-ass place downtown where they have over a hundred thousand square feet, currently sitting empty because of COVID.” (Spotify reps did not return a request for comment.)
Joining the group on Sunset was Michelle Lewis, co-founder of SONA, who was admiring this approach, laughingly calling SONA “the little bit more nerdy people” who take action sitting in a room “like the student council,” compared to the cooler and more public-facing crowd she considers the 100 Percenters to be. “I’m very proud of them for pulling this together,” Lewis said. “We haven’t been marching in the streets yet, but we’re absolutely here to support.”
“It’s part of a long strategy to keep the pressure on, to keep the spotlight on where the real injustice is, or one of the many injustices of Spotify,” added Lewis. “They’re clearly bad actors in so many ways. Because the Joe Rogan case will be in the news for five minutes, but there’s an entire class of workers that’s been squished by these unfair rates for years. So it’s part of the long game. I like to say: Come for the culture war, stay for the workers’ rights.”
Said Kaydence: “We understand that it’s not just the DSPs; it’s the labels that own them. With the CRB trials coming up in April, we need to make noise because our voices are not heard. And it’s crazy that I can list you all those credits” — which beyond hits for Grande and Beyonce also include Daniel Caesar and Brandy — “and still not be able to afford basic rent, you know? I don’t have a safety net. I don’t have a family I can rely on to pay my bills. So if I can’t get paid from publishing, how do I get paid?
“I think the public sees songwriters like me and sees who we work with, and then assume that you’re well-paid and taken care of. And it’s just not the case. Yet I think (songwriters) base a lot of their worth on presenting the illusion that they’re doing better than they actually are. And we’re just here to face the reality that we’re not.”
Red started the 100 Percenters as an outgrowth of going viral in 2020 from a social media post she put up that caught the attention of K-pop fans worldwide. She laid out just how little she had been paid for co-writing the song that broke the K-pop group NCT, “Boss,” and declared that royalty deals were so bad with Korean music businesses that she was opting out of doing more writing within that genre. Rather than form a backlash, K-pop fans turned out to be largely on her side.
“All the fans got behind it,” Red says. “They were like, ‘Wait, this is my favorite song.'” There was also a side element of: “‘Wait, Black girls write K-pop? What the fuck?’ They were blowing it up, and it was so cool. Because that was the first time that I learned how to argue a case. I was like, ‘I’m gonna play you guys a demo.’ I tell people the story of how I wrote the song and told them how much of the percentage I own, showed them the royalty checks, laid the whole thing out. So it was like, ‘You decide.’ And the fans were the ones that were like, ‘What?'”
Red is grateful for the Rogan controversy, even though that’s not her primary cause, because “it opened the door. Everyone has different grievances with Spotify, and I respect all of it. Some people were about misinformation. Some people were about racial slurs. We’re like, ‘And they pay us like shit.’ With Rogan, I believe in free speech and feel like everybody’s entitled to their opinion, but they’re not going to build a business on our backs and not pay us and then pay him to call us the N-word. That’s just not going down. It’s not happening.”
Lewis contends that Spotify could still turn things around and become heroes instead of villains in the minds of these groups’ memberships. “It’s always just adding insult to injury when they pay a podcaster hundreds of millions of dollars or buy a European football team. It would be so easy for them to do the right thing once. So yeah, they are kind of the bad actor” among DSPs, she feels. “Although YouTube isn’t great either, and Apple Music is in the next CRB (appeal). We love Tidal.:They’re not in the CRB, they pay creators fairly, they give a shit about the things that we give a shit about like audio quality and credits, and their heart’s in the right place. If we could get everybody over to Tidal, let’s do it. But they only have 1% of the subscription marketshare. If Apple wanted to show how much they care about the creators, just drop out of the next CRB and do a deal, and we will bring everyone there. The creators will absolutely celebrate the one that does the right thing.”