What The Songwriting World Needs Now

Burt Bacharach‘s music has resonated through every generation and genre since he first started composing hit songs more than a half-century ago. His memorable and distinctive music, along with the words of his longtime collaborator, lyricist Hal David, gets a focused celebration six nights each week at the New York Theater Workshop, through “What’s It All About?—Bacharach Reimagined” (which has been extended through Feb. 15th.)
I’ve not yet seen the show, but Charles Isherwood, writing in The New York Times, assures that it isn’t “another jukebox musical manufactured to supply baby boomers with a sweet rush of synthetic nostalgia.” Instead, Isherwood writes, “the musical reinvigorates the staged-songbook genre by stripping familiar pop songs of their shiny veneer, and by digging into the melancholy and yearning that suffuses so many of the hits Mr. Bacharach wrote.”
Aside from his compositions and David’s lyrics, Bacharach’s own words commanded attention recently, lending a different sort of context to his catalog of hits on the Opinion page of The Wall Street Journal. In an essay titled “What The Songwriting World Needs Now,” he implored the U.S. Justice Department to revise the consent decrees that govern licenses (and therefore, pay, for composers, lyricists and musicians) in order to align with a digital world that, under the current scheme, amounts to a badly rigged game (with artists coming out the losers). Bacharach began by describing his humble beginnings:

Like almost every songwriter, I struggled for years, endured many rejections and had to borrow rent money from my dad. My first office at New York’s Brill Building, which was the hub of the songwriting world, was so small that I barely had room for an upright piano and an air conditioner that didn’t work in a window that couldn’t open.

He then outlined the current problem:

Today, many songwriters are being denied fair compensation as a result of antiquated regulations that were conceived over 70 years ago for a different world. Songwriters are especially disadvantaged because we are governed by outdated settlements between the Justice Department and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, better known as ASCAP, and Broadcast Music Inc., or BMI….
As music embraces the digital transition, it seems obvious that the anachronistic way songwriters and composers are remunerated should evolve, too. This is especially necessary in the wake of recent court interpretations of the consent decrees that perpetuate the devaluation of our work.
Although Internet radio didn’t exist when those decrees were crafted, the decrees apply to the online radio service Pandora, which has a market cap of over $6 billion. The result is that songwriters earn about 8 cents for every 1,000 times Pandora plays their song. If Pandora plays a song 10 million times, it gives the writers $800. Imagine, in one quarter in 2012, Pandora paid songwriter Linda Perry only $349.16—despite playing Christina Aguilera’s recording of her song “Beautiful” 12.7 million times.

I should say that I was drawn to Bacharach’s essay, after the fact, by the Facebook page of The Council of Music Creators—New York, one of many groups working to address this issue. I was drawn to that page by a post from Grammy-winning composer and bandleader Maria Schneider, who called the council, “the most important thing I’m doing musically these days.”
The digital world opens many valuable doors and strips away many annoying barriers (for instance, it enabled me to quickly click through screens in a way that led to this post). It also provided the platform by which Schneider, working with ArtistShare, could achieve the first Grammy win for a fan-funded CD.) Yet for musicians, artists, writers and anyone else who creates the stuff that some in the digital industries have come to call “content,” the online and streamed world can also be a dangerous and devaluing place. That needn’t be the case, as long as audiences, readers and those tasked with regulating commerce recognize the problems and think about their larger values before each download.
Photo by Mark Davis/WireImage

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