Songwriters get pitiful amounts as streaming offers tiny royalties

Artists like Adele and Taylor Swift have spoken out against the low royalties for artists paid by streaming services, but professional songwriters are making even less money from the hits they've penned.

Writers of today's hits earn as little as $20 for every million streams by online listeners

Singers have spoken out about the paltry royalties they make from streaming, but the songwriters are even worse off. Kevin Kadish, left, co-wrote All About That Bass with Meghan Trainor, centre. Singer-songwriter Luke McMaster, right, writes for himself and stars like Rihanna. (Getty Images/Luke McMaster)

They're the brains that create the songs you love, but don't expect songwriters to be able to make a living by writing hits that get millions of plays on streaming services. 

"I'll get a cheque in the mail for $20 for a million streams, and that just makes absolutely no sense to me," says Canadian songwriter Luke McMaster, who's penned hits for the likes of Rihanna and recently had a song he co-wrote get a million streams on Spotify.

McMaster is not alone. Though copyright laws vary from one country to another, the sentiment among songwriters is uniform: a hit song, when streamed, will buy a pizza, but not support a family.

American songwriter Kevin Kadish, who co-wrote the body-positive anthem All About That Bass with Meghan Trainor, complained to the U.S. Congress that he received $5,679 US for a song that had 178 million streams.

Songwriter Michelle Lewis recently revealed that she received a $17 US cheque for co-writing Wings, a hit for the British girl group Little Mix that had three million streams on Spotify.

Because they're not celebrities in their own right, the songwriters' problems have received less publicity than, say, Adele or Taylor Swift's beefs with the streaming services. 

"The songwriters have the least sort of leverage to be able to stand up for their rights," says Toronto-based entertainment lawyer Safwan Javed, who also sits on the board of the Songwriters' Association of Canada and behind the drum kit of the band Wide Mouth Mason. 

"We're in the Wild, Wild West situation with respect to how music is distributed these days and the role of various players play within that chain."

Who gets the money?

The "players" he mentions are the streaming services (Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, etc.), music labels and music publishers that typically represent songwriters and collect royalties on their behalf. 

Historically, songwriters and music publishers made a small portion of profits anytime a song was sold or played on the radio. But copyright laws written decades ago could not have predicted the birth of streaming, where music is neither sold nor broadcast in a traditional sense.

Nathan Wiszniak, label relations specialist for Spotify Canada, says the streaming service has paid $3 billion to rights holders. (Keith Whelan/CBC)

Still, streaming services make money from advertising and paid-tier subscriptions — so why is so little of it ending up in the songwriters' pockets?

"Spotify does contribute 70 per cent of our revenues to rights holders, so that's a really big part of how we're paying back into the industry, and we paid over $3 billion to the rights holders," says Nathan Wiszniak, label relations specialist for Spotify Canada. 

But just who the "rights holders" are is open to interpretation. Record labels have managed to strike deals with streaming services that enable them to take a slice of the profit anytime an artist's song is played. But songwriters and music publishers — owners of the rights to the song's music and lyrics — are not part of those deals.

(Streaming services) haven't done a very good job at proactively going out there and figuring out who they need to license the works from and pay for those uses.- Safwan Javed, lawyer/drummer

"They have no system actually in place, for dealing with and assessing who are their stakeholders, who are the rights holders, who are the writers and who are the publishers," says Javed.

"They haven't done a very good job at proactively going out there and figuring out who they need to license the works from and pay for those uses."

Fair trade music

Different people propose different solutions to the problem. In Canada, songwriters' associations have petitioned the Copyright Board to adopt laws that better protect the rights of music creators. South of the border, songwriters have launched a $150 million US class-action lawsuit against Spotify as a reimbursement for lost royalties. 

But Javed believes a quicker and more meaningful solution is in the hands of music lovers.

"I've really lost a lot of faith in the governmental sector doing something to fix this."

Safwan Javed is an entertainment lawyer and the drummer for Wide Mouth Mason. (CBC )

Instead, he's a proponent of Fair Trade Music, a campaign that seeks to certify streaming services, record labels, even album releases, that fairly compensate all music creators.

Fair Trade Music has tens of thousands of signatories around the world, and Javed believes ethical-minded consumers will gravitate towards it the way they do to fair trade coffee.

But for Luke McMaster, there's no time to wait. A singer in his own right, he's now touring to promote his new album — an option for him, but not for many other songwriters.

"It is a function of who you are, it's almost like breathing, so I'm not going to stop writing songs," he says. 

"But for myself and a lot of my peers, it's making it a lot more difficult. I have friends in the industry, some of the most talented people I have known, that have just given up."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?