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As WGA Writers Push for Reforms, Songwriters Ask, ‘When’s Our Turn?’

As the Writers Guild of America continues to ramp up its first strike in over 15 years, no one in the music business has been looking on with more intrigue — and maybe a hint of envy — than songwriters. The cadre of behind-the-scenes hitmakers have themselves been looking for ways to push reforms of their own for years, albeit to much less media coverage than what the WGA saw this week. 

“Many of those WGA writers have been my friends for years. I think what they’re doing is amazing and inspiring, and to be super honest, I’m jealous,” Justin Tranter, who has penned hits for Fall Out Boy, Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, says with a light chuckle.  

Tranter is far from the only writer in the music business with those sentiments. Many songwriters tell Rolling Stone they face some of the broader issues the WGA has highlighted while on strike: smaller checks as their business has transitioned to the streaming era and frustration at seeing huge payouts for corporate executives while being told there isn’t money to allocate for them. 

But while screenwriters have the backing of a long-established union whose origins date back to the early days of their industry, songwriters have no such vehicle and can’t technically unionize due to a ruling from the Reagan-era National Labor Relations Board that labeled them as independent contractors. That ruling makes it significantly harder for them to collectively bargain. 

“We need to fight this fight and find a way. I don’t have the answer at this very moment, but an extreme change is needed,” Tranter says. “Songwriters literally can’t unionize, and without a union to support us, it would take every songwriter in the world to just agree we wouldn’t work. There are amazing new songwriters I work with every week who have streams in the billions who need to drive Uber or do OnlyFans because they can’t pay their rent. The WGA is inspiring and amazing and I hope it inspires the songwriting community that we shouldn’t be so afraid. If we all lock arms, we can make a change.”

As James “Jhart” Abrahart, whose credits include tracks with Kygo, Camila Cabello and OneRepublic, says, “A lot of times we are pitted against each other or used as pawns by the powers that be to make sure that we aren’t in the position that screenwriters are in, where we can actually get together and demand something like that and go on strike.”

Michelle Lewis, the president of trade group Songwriters of North America, has a similar perspective. Songwriters have seen some notable victories in recent years, with SONA playing a prominent role in advancing the Music Modernization Act that passed in 2018, while in the past year the Copyright Royalty Board has issued better rates for songwriters’ royalties. 

But while she’s seen what songwriters can accomplish on a unified front, Lewis says there’s a limit to what they can change without a more institutional voice with the industry’s other stakeholders. 

Lewis is continuing to push alongside other advocates, and while she remains hopeful those efforts will yield more wins, seeing the immediacy of the WGA strike was a bittersweet reminder about what stands in their way. 

 “I think what they’re doing is amazing and inspiring, and to be super honest, I’m jealous”

justin tranter

“You see how much this strike has impacted film and TV already, but we don’t have that option in the same way,” she says. “Our industries aren’t the same — people will point out that songwriters own copyrights — but you see so many similarities with us. It comes down to reform in the streaming economy. And what makes me feel the most bummed out today is the stark realization of how little power we have. We have no power.”

Several songwriters who spoke with Rolling Stone have mentioned similar types of reforms they say the industry should adopt, whether that’d be from a union or not. They want session fees or day rates separate from song royalties to ensure they get paid for work with artists in the studio. They want a percentage of ownership on their songs’ master recordings instead of just publishing rights, given how increasingly important the master has become for revenue. And, of course, there’s always health insurance. 

“I really don’t want to die without getting songwriters health care. It’s grossly unfair that everyone who works at a performance rights organization, everyone at a publisher, everyone at a label has health care and it’s not easily available for songwriters,” Lewis says. 

As Ross Golan — another prominent songwriter and advocate who has written with Flo Rida, Ariana Grande and Selena Gomez — adds: “The first and most important thing is to make sure songwriters have healthcare, whether they’re realizing that,” he says. “They may not know that, but that is the biggest advantage of SAG-AFTRA. It’s not just the fees or the revenue splits.”

Every songwriter who spoke with Rolling Stone suggests writers should put their focus on record labels — who have the most market share — for some of those carveouts. (The Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the record labels, declined to comment.) Record label insiders have suggested that for songwriters to get more, DSPs like Spotify and Apple Music need to pay more. In a previous statement last November regarding songwriters’ calls for more equitable earnings, the RIAA said that “there is room for all creators to thrive without taking from each other [and] we are always strongest when we stand together as one. Only the tech platforms benefit when music creators are pitted against each other in a race to the bottom.”

Golan further questions whether those goals can be met with cooperation from other stakeholders, even if there isn’t an official guild around them. “Do we need a union?” Golan says, “or do we need the people who are working around us to fight a little harder for certain things that are traditionally not part of their revenue stream?”

Whether it comes through a union or not, some songwriters say that any change won’t happen without a more unified front among one another. Some writers want to go as far as strike right away, while others want to lay the groundwork for more gradual change. 

Tiffany Red, founder of the songwriter advocacy group the 100 Percenters, already staged protests outside of Universal Music Group earlier this year, but with a small group joining her, she says she was disappointed and feels writers need to step up for themselves more to make changes happen. 

“I really don’t want to die without getting songwriters health care”

michelle lewis

“I feel inspired looking at the WGA strike. The strike we’re watching now is 11,500 screenwriters holding the line,” Red says. “They’re willing to picket, strike, anger the studios, disrupt relationships, the things that need to be done so they and future generations of screenwriters can have a livable wage.”

“If there’s anyone I’m frustrated with,” Red continues, “It’s other songwriters. We have to show up for ourselves. I’ve organized three protests; there weren’t droves of songwriters who came out. I was pissed. My phone is blowing up every day with people saying they want change. There’s petitions going around, but people aren’t coming out. They’re scared. I’ve been saying since I started that whether we’re a union or not, if we all came together and put our differences aside, this would work.”

Songwriter groups fighting for more equity have been bubbling for years, and multiple organizations including SONA are exploring how to gain more collective bargaining power despite the Reagan-era ruling. But such an action takes significant time and money, so any such attempt shouldn’t be expected immediately. 

“I feel inspired looking at the WGA strike”

tiffany red

Merck Mercuriadis, whose Hipgnosis Songs Fund has spent the past several years buying up the rights to songs from prominent writers and recording artists, also spearheads a songwriters guild and has been vocal on the need for increased compensation for songwriters.

Mercuriadis first spoke about the guild in Billboard in 2021, stating he had support of major songwriters including Ryan Tedder, Ali Tamposi and Andrew Watt. While he declined to comment about specific strategies toward advancing the initiative, he says he’s actively pursuing avenues that would give songwriters a seat at the table with other stakeholders to negotiate.  

Mercuriadis describes the WGA’s efforts as a “ tonesetter” for how songwriters can pursue better deals for themselves. “One of the things the WGA constantly talks about is their members being at the table. That’s never happened in the music industry,” Mercuriadis says. “We haven’t had that moment in the music business yet. That’s not the fault of the streamers, that’s the fault of the companies trying to control the pie. In any negotiation, all the stakeholders should be at the table. 

“The fortunes of the music industry have been improved by streaming, and these great songs are not the product of a CEO like myself; they are the product of great writers,” he adds. “Songwriters should get paid more money, movie writers should get paid more money, TV writers should get paid more money. It’s only logical that this is happening in a streaming economy where more money is flooding into our business than ever before.”

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