Giving It Away


Van Dyke Parks on How Songwriters Are Getting Screwed in the Digital Age

In the digital age, the idea that everything is free has brought genuine hardship to the music business in general and to composers most of all.

Last month I was invited up to Ringo Starr’s home in Beverly Hills. He asked me to write a song with him for his next “virtual” album. In two days’ devotion, we conjured and recorded a piece called “Bamboula.”

We then sat back and guessed what our possible “day rate” for that time and effort would be. What an irony!

Forty years ago, co-writing a song with Ringo Starr would have provided me a house and a pool. Now, estimating 100,000 plays on Spotify, we guessed we’d split about $80. When I got home, on closer study, I found out we were way too optimistic. Spotify (on par with other streamers) pays only .00065 cents per play.

There’s less support for all the arts today, and the blade gets duller with every cut in arts funding. It degrades dance, opera, even academia and, significantly, the art of journalism. As a result, in the U.S., public opinion suffers from what we call “infotainment.” That’s a genre of media news that is not informing, entertaining, or remedial. And it’s a direct result of a vacuum of patronage (and by patronage, I don’t mean just Medici-style sponsorship but the willingness of all arts consumers to pay for what they listen to, read, and watch, and for the industry to fairly recompense creators).

But let’s limit ourselves to a narrow-band study of royalty rates in my occupational field, music composition, and to industry practices in the U.S. from 1914 to 2014, a century in which declining royalty figures reveal a real dilemma: an imploding commodification if not outright destruction of intellectual property rights.

‘Freedom of Thought’ does not mean ‘Free Stuff.’

Royalty rates affect not only the very quality of music but also the way society values creators, whether of “serious” or “popular” art (as if they can be easily bifurcated). Even “serious” music isn’t being taken all that seriously, it seems. We unavoidably discover a present-day talent pool hammered down by a stringent decline in patronage and compensation for ideas, both big and small. I see that as a very bad thing, not just for composers but also for society as a whole.

In 1907, American March King John Philip Sousa went to Washington, where he raised his prescient grave concerns to senators and congressmen about what he called “canned music.” He predicted an inevitable damaging effect that recordings would have on live musicians. So let’s now define some terms that describe the technology and related industrial attitudes in this hundred-year span to see just how right Sousa was.

Music “residuals” are shared by publishers and composers via “mechanical” reproduction. The noun “mechanicals” refers to any physical reproduction of a composed and performed work—that is, “canned music.”

It all started out so gaily, about a hundred years ago, when in 1914, Madam Ernestine Schumann-Heink sang the first recording of “Danny Boy.” Her platter sold like hot cakes. That nostalgic song became a musical signature tune for Allied soldiers in Europe during World War I, and when the war was over, Yankee “Dough Boys” brought “Danny Boy” home with them. Few songs before or since have enjoyed such galvanizing popularity in historic moments, much as “The Marseillaise” did in 1792, or “We Shall Overcome” did in the Civil Rights movement.

Back in the USA, returning veterans found that the middle class had adopted the piano as a sign of refinement. Parlor pianos were all the rage then. Some came with a Welte-vorsetzer (player piano capability). Husbands gave them to their wives as “maternity gifts.” The Steinway in my living room was such a gift. It was brought into a Parks parlor for my grandmother by her husband, the very day my father was born, March 11, 1911. I play it to this day.

Robust sheet music sales made piano-composers such as Percy Grainger (who transcribed “Danny Boy” for keyboard) very wealthy, and “printed music,” whether piano rolls or sheet music, reigned supreme as the major source of royalties until our great Depression.

In a pie graph of the music industry in 1914, the composer’s profit slice was—relative to now—quite generous. That’s because, in the U.S., such royalty rates had become statutory, with non-negotiable minimums, in a 1909 law that set the songwriter’s fee for a mechanical reproduction at 2 cents.

At that rate, Sousa could have made mega-bucks if he’d just gone along with it. But he avoided the microphone, and the recording industry paraded ahead without him.

Meager as it was, that 2-cent mechanical rate of 1914 proportionally dwarfs the 9.1 cents per physical copy paid today.

How does that 9 cents compare to the 2 cents of 1914?

If you take that 2-cent royalty from a century ago, and multiply it at today’s value given inflation, a conservative per song-play royalty rate would be 2 dollars.

Not 2 cents. Not 9.1 cents.

As compensation for intellectual property, these low returns just don’t equate with any other industrial growth. People, am I going too fast?

Let me be clear: In 1914, a loaf of bread cost 5 cents (for the minority who didn’t bake their own bread). The Model T Ford retailed for $200. An average teacher’s salary was $60 for the school year. A song copy got 2 cents—a rate that held for the next 64 years.

So, in 1978, Congress decided to review this discrepancy. Why did our elected officials wait so long to be fair? Because they were bought by lobbying donations from the record industry. But in 1978, our Congress finally set up a Copyright Royalty Boarda tribunal of judges that meets every five years to re-examine rates for physical copies (and, lately, for the new digital income-stream for copyright holders called “downloads”).

Oops! We’ve just plunged into a whole new market arena. It is beyond physical.

Royalty rates drop to the alarmingly fractional in this new “non-physical” arena.

Let’s quantify: A typical (non-physical) download costs 99 cents at iTunes. Of that, Apple (the distributor) takes 50 cents. Forty cents goes to the record label. Nine cents goes to the publisher. Record companies pay the artist’s royalty out of its 40 cents, and the publishers pay the composer the slender 9.1 cents stipulated by the 1978 copyright act.

My peers and I adjusted. Since the iTunes Store launched in 2003, digital music sales have been the industry’s only salvation in the face of declining physical album sales and rampant online piracy. Any revenue at all would be entirely welcome.

Now fast-forward to 2011 and streaming. The new thing! Just as composers and their related industries were adjusting to the horrors of digitization, Spotify and its streaming concept hit the U.S. market in 2011. The result? Last year, U.S. digital music and CD sales dropped 14 percent from the year before. Digital downloads (the record companies’ last gasp) simply weren’t able to stem streaming’s allure.

Get this: Streaming offers its customers all the music in the world for just $6 per month, splitting royalties indiscriminately among a vast collective talent pool. And that’s the audience that pays for streaming—millions of listeners are willing to listen to more limited versions of streaming services for free.

The only good news is that piracy dwindled at the same time the Big Five music corporations (Warner [which was recently bought by a Russian billionaire], EMI, Sony, Universal, and BMG [recently absorbed by Sony]) began to monetize streaming. These giants joined to make this new market “better than free” because they thought that streaming would increase profits exponentially, given the emerging developing world’s listening audience.

For its part, the public didn’t give the idea of streaming a second thought in terms of ethics. The mass-midget mind was concretized with the very idea that “free thought” means “free stuff.” So no one quarreled with the idea of maximizing profits for packagers and distributors even as revenues for the composer/artist were being decimated.

In my view, this exacts a heavy toll on live performance, collaborative esthetics, and the variety of life and its expression.

A new generation has been born never having known anything other than this “free stuff” idea, at the same time we’ve seen the concept of privacy dissolve. These youths will never know the value of privacy. That concept as a civil right is gone. Gone, too, are the heretofore immutable protections of intellectual property rights. How can you miss something you’ve never had? Yet, I see this new disregard for such property rights as sinister in every way.

In that, I am as skeptical as once was John Philips Sousa. Given Spotify’s .00065 cents per play royalty, try to imagine how many sales it would take to cover the cost of just a three-hour string quartet session.

I see in 2014, as Sousa did in 1914, an uneasy standoff between music’s creators and their distributors. A handful of musical conglomerates have gathered to snuff out reasonable artist/composer compensation, and the already apparent result is a centralized homogeneity of music. With, say, Chinese and Indian youths in villages with wifi now paying micro-cents to listen, new markets are admittedly emerging. But even as the music market goes global, the ancillary cost is a troubling conglomeratization of thought, style, and taste.

To cite but one example of this problem: In the vacuum of patronage, there’s an increased rarity of acoustic ensembles available to new artists/composers. It’s as lamentable as the loss of glacial ice. Ensembles are of vestigial interest in this new pop culture. As a result, too many U.S. orchestras, opera, and dance companies are losing their endowments amid a swill of bourgeois bohemian rock ubiquity. As the French say, “Bo Bo.” This vernacular diet of a faux gras American pop-rock hegemony has replaced a vibrantly precious global musical elasticity and variety. We must find a way to get out of that box.

I hate to sound like a curmudgeon. It’s not sexy. Yet, I relate to the skepticism of Sousa, in his cautions about unfair practices in a free market of recorded music. Something’s wrong when the tail wags the dog and the provider dictates content. That’s not freedom of thought. We must discover a means of subsidy by which music and parallel arts may thrive unapologetically. Let us remember: “Freedom of Thought” does not mean “Free Stuff.

We must fix this ruptured pipeline for the popular arts. It can’t come from a half-hearted, flaccid philanthropy but rather from a nexus of patronage, from both private entrepreneurs and the public sector. We’d better take a real hard look—and soon—at the disproportionate profits of creators and distributors of ideas. Our priority should be in nurturing new ideas and innovative art, and the people who create those ideas and that art must be fairly and legally compensated.

I’ve been inescapably subjective, because I make my living as a composer and a musician. But lately I’m in shock and awe at what I’ve witnessed in the struggling artists and composers who surround me. And if what I’m saying comes as an inconvenient truth, it’s corroborated by no less than Abraham Lincoln. Let me quote him: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

It’s time we pay the pipers what they deserve.

Van Dyke Parks is a composer and musician whose albums include Song Cycle, Discover America, Jump!, Tokyo Rose, Songs Cycled and Super Chief. His numerous collaborations include, most notably, Orange Crate Art and Smile with Brian Wilson, and he is the co-author, with Barry Moser and Malcolm Jones, of Jump!, a retelling of Brer Rabbit stories.