Sunday, October 30, 2005

Nashville In The Meantime

Nashville songwriters continue to face many difficult realities in the modern day music publishing business. Forced to contend with consolidated radio homogenization, corporate mergers and music piracy, songwriters are now finding it tougher than ever before to earn a living in their professional field. Hard times may indeed inspire some country songs, but getting record "cuts" in these times is becoming increasingly remote as a realistic hope for most writers other than the top established hitmakers.

According to the Nashville Songwriters Association International, more than half of America's professional songwriters have been lost through attrition over the past decade as transitional forces impact even more heavily now on those trying to stay alive. Most songwriters are adapting to making their livings now through writing musical scores, producing and turning to television work. They can no longer depend merely on pitching songs, having two or three hits every few years and making a living that way.

Unlike pop and R&B, which often rely on the genius of a brilliant producer, the soul of country music has traditionally been the lyrics and melodies of its songwriters. Country artists also rely more heavily than others on "outside" professional songwriters.

Even for well known, but increasingly frustrated songwriters, things are harder now than they were even a few years ago, when the recession and file-sharing knocked the bottom out of the music industry. Many veteran writers on Music Row, now believe there are fewer than ever opportunities in an ever shrinking business.

Writers now compose songs for movies and TV & perform at clubs.

That's their bread and butter now.

Much of the blame for what is occurring in the songwriting/publishing business is attributed to corporate "radio consolidation", the term for stations playing a narrow variety of artists, fewer songs and relying on cookie-cutter programming. These factors among other things, have made it much tougher to get airplay and the lucrative publishing royalties that airplay generates.

Songwriter royalties from CD sales are about 8.5 cents per song; that's usually split between the writer and the publisher. Often, the songwriters' cut is even less because he has to share it with a co-writer. The big money for successful songwriters is from airplay performance royalties, which are paid when a song is played on radio.

A No.1 single can generate $600,000 to $700,000 in royalties over the first two years of release. That money typically is split between the songwriter and the publisher. A song that becomes a classic will continue to generate revenue for years to come, though much less than when it was new. Still, it's not a bad payday if you're lucky enough to secure that placement at radio.

Songwriters also have had to contend with the consolidation of major record labels. A series of corporate mergers has left only these major music companies: Universal, Warner Bros., EMI and Sony/BMG. Indeed, Universal [UMG] has recently announced it's plans to diversify by broadening away from being soley a record company into becoming a "music entertainment company".

UMG still likes hit records, but a one-format wonder is becoming a thing of the past. Major label emphasis will now focus on several new revenue areas, including ringtones, paid downloads, subscriptions, advertising, and even fashion branding. Pointing specifically to digital downloads, mobile-based formats, and subscriptions, companies will now trace a steep adoption increase as revenues from these new businesses grew from essentially nothing in the first half of 2003 to over $121.6 million for the first half of 2005 with UMG dominating market share amongst the current Big Four.

The pie itself is continuing to shrink however. Major companies are making some very interesting deals now, including new partnerships and investment stakes in mobile entertainment upstarts like amp'd Mobile. Strategies are being outlined to take advantage of new formats like podcasting, ad-supported audio and video sites, and peer-to-peer technologies. But, despite the growth of a myriad of new formats, digital sales still only represent a small fraction of overall earnings, and the Big Four are not about to abandon their bread-and-butter physical business. Still, a CD-based success story is less likely to happen in isolation going forward. Diversifying revenue sources across several new technologies is key to survival.

It now appears likely as well that EMI and Warner Bros. will merge soon too which will concentrate issues across a tighter band of priority interests. Many professionals in the industry, including songwriters, producers, musicians, publicists — have all lost their jobs in the dramatic earthquake and shuffle of these past few years. The picture is not about to get better any time soon.

Established songwriters are able to work as independents, but many professional songwriters are employed by publishing companies. I started that way too. The publishing company I once worked for had about 100 staff writers in 1993, a little more than 50 in 1997 and fewer than 30 today. As a former staff writer working for a major music publisher on Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee, I can attest to the harsh reality this deep attrition has created amongst songwriters. I was lucky. I opted out of my Combine/SBK contract before the deluge & the tidal wave of cuts in the late 90's early 2000's.

The problem is that sales are off the pace set during country's commercial peak in the early and mid '90s. Revenue from the sale of country music albums quadrupled between 1989 and 1995 to about $2 billion. But in recent years sales have stalled.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, country music sales fell nearly 10 percent in 2003, outpacing a decline of less than 1 percent by the industry overall that year. Country album sales fell from 76.9 million in 2002 to 69.3 million units.

As for music piracy, or downloading music for free from the Internet, everyone believes it's a problem, but not the worst one. Ultimately, many predict, the technology will help songwriters and performers more than hurt them. The challenge now, they say, is for the record companies to catch up to changing technology and consumer demand. The same business models have been employed for 50 years. It's time to embrace different business models now that are more consumer friendly so that in the long run, songwriters and publishers will see more likely return on their professional investments.

Frank Trainor

[This FRANKtalk feature commentary includes information which was previously published and does not infringe on source copyrights]


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