After years of struggle and even a few months of homelessness, Kimberly “Kaydence” Krysiuk was sure her big break as a songwriter had finally arrived. In August 2018, Ariana Grande released her fourth album, Sweetener, and there, at Number 12 on the track list, was the acerbic kiss-off ballad “Better Off,” co-written by Krysiuk two years earlier over a Hit-Boy beat. At age 27, she had achieved every young songwriter’s dream, her lyrics and melodies sent aloft via a superstar’s silky voice. The world was hearing her work. Big money, she assumed, was on its way.
At the time, she didn’t mind that Grande took 10 percent of the songwriting credit for what Krysiuk describes as “changing three or four words,” tweaking the lyric that ended up as “watch you smoke and drink.” (Producer Tommy “TBHits” Brown, who worked on “Better Off,” disputes Krysiuk’s account: “That was definitely not [Grande’s] only contribution,” he says. “We sat down there with the entire song and worked on it together. [Grande] is very, very hands-on with everything she does. She’s not one of the artists that just take songs and doesn’t do anything.”)
Krysiuk was, instead, busy thinking about the house in L.A. she thought she would soon be able to afford, especially with other promising placements starting to come in. “I didn’t understand the business of it,” says Krysiuk, who had exhausted an advance from her publishing company and was surviving mostly by renting out her studio space and doing workshops for aspiring writers. “I was like, ‘I’m good, I’m set.’ ”
Grande once said that “Better Off” was one of her favorite tracks on the album, but it was ultimately just that — an album track, with no significant radio play. As recently as the Nineties, Krysiuk still would have been in luck, if the album was big enough. Singer-songwriter-producer Matthew Koma recalls moving to L.A. as a teenager in the mid-aughts and meeting veteran songwriters who bragged of deep-cut riches from “writing some track eight or nine [for] Whitney Houston: ‘I made $700,000 off that song!’ ” Kevin Griffin, frontman of Nineties-bred rock act Better Than Ezra, who now also works as a writer for other artists, says he made “in the millions” in songwriting royalties alone from their big album, 1993’s Deluxe (which, to be fair, did include the hit single “Good”).
But those writers’ fortunes are relics of a long-vanished world where fans drove to Virgin Megastores to pay $18.99 for shrink-wrapped CDs. In the early years of this century, piracy and single-song sales on iTunes decimated album sales, and in July 2011, Spotify arrived in the United States. For songwriters, streaming royalties tend to add up to not much at all — hobbyist money, really.
The first royalty check Krysiuk received for “Better Off” was for a total of $2,004.61, and over the four years since, an additional $16,000 has trickled in, even though she has 40 percent of the writing credit for the song, an unusually high percentage in modern pop. Even worse, she co-wrote 10 songs on Brandy’s acclaimed 2020 album, B7, spending two years on a project that ended up leading to about $4,000 in income for her — a tiny fraction of what minimum-wage labor would’ve yielded over the same period of time.
In 2023, songwriting is more like a lottery than a profession. Like many creative fields, it’s been hollowed out, turned precarious, with most practitioners fighting over scraps while a tiny fraction of ultra-successful winners thrive. The only way to squeeze significant income out of a songwriting credit now is to land a solid hit on terrestrial radio, where lucrative legacy royalty rates still reign, or to get placements in movies, TV, or ads, known as “syncs.” For Krysiuk, a tiny writing percentage on a later Grande song, “Thank U, Next,” garnered her the single biggest royalty check of her career: $26,000, simply because that song was a radio smash. (She later successfully fought for a larger piece of the proceeds after a dispute with the other co-writers.)
Songwriter Warren “Oak” Felder, who’s written for Usher, Alicia Keys, Nicki Minaj, and Demi Lovato, was recently in the studio with a talented fellow writer who announced that he had to leave a session after three hours of work. He mentioned the name of a restaurant, and Felder assumed he had a reservation. “He’s like, ‘No, no, I’m going to work,’ ” says Felder. “He’s like, ‘I work in the kitchen.’ I’m like, ‘Holy crap.’ What happens when he’s no longer able to afford to come to the studio, right? We lose that guy. If I named you some of the songs that this guy has written? You’d be like, ‘We can’t lose him.’… I can think of so many examples of songwriters that have gotten out of the game.”
Caroline Ailin, who co-wrote Dua Lipa’s breakthrough hit, “New Rules,” had quit the industry by the time it came out in 2017 and was working as a waitress, according to her friend and co-writer Emily Warren — it took that song’s massive success to bring her back. Warren says another songwriter friend of hers has “Grammy Awards, hundreds of millions of streams, and he drives Uber to pay rent. Like, that doesn’t make any sense. It’s the only job I can think of where you do a job and don’t get paid.”
Al Sherrod Lambert, who co-wrote Michelle Williams’ chart-topping 2014 gospel hit “Say Yes” and has written for Pitbull and Janet Jackson, among others, says, “I know of a lot of songwriters who have to have other hustles — I’m talking about legal and illegal, and having to make choices between getting themselves to a session and buying lunch, buying dinner.”
Producers tend to get per-song fees — which are technically advances against future royalties — that can be significant: According to one industry source, they can amount to as much as $50,000 per song for A-list names, or between $5,000 and $15,000 for less prominent producers. Songwriters typically get precisely zero in advance, and only recently has there even been discussion of modest per diems to help them survive between hits. Some writers have also begun pressuring producers to cede some of their fees or royalty points, which only seems to work when the writers are in greatest demand. Again, winners are taking all, with little-known writers hit hardest. “You go, ‘I want to charge a session fee,’ ” says one manager of songwriters and producers, who asked for anonymity. “And people are like, ‘Who are you?’ ”
Publishers, with the support of advocacy groups like Songwriters of North America, have won a series of hard-fought victories in recent years, bumping up streaming rates, with more increases scheduled for the future. Writers say they’re grateful for the efforts, but no one seems convinced it’s going to make much of a practical difference, at least in the short term. “What are we talking about here?” says Lambert. “The difference between $4,000 and $6,000?”
In February 2022, Lambert and Krysiuk joined a songwriters’ protest outside the Los Angeles headquarters of Spotify, where writers held picket signs with slogans like “No budget? No bops.” The protest was organized by the 100 Percenters, an organization founded in 2020 by singer-songwriter Tiffany Red. “Songwriters have been trying to be heard in this conversation forever,” says Red, who decided to piggyback on the then-red-hot controversy over Joe Rogan’s use of racial slurs and tolerance of Covid misinformation on his Spotify-produced podcast. “But we’re the least heard. We’re hidden in the back. People were going at Spotify for so many reasons. It was the perfect [moment] to be like, ‘Yeah, and don’t forget that you built your company on our back, and we’re getting paid like shit.’ ” (Spotify reps made no comment.)
Red started the group during the reckoning sparked by the murder of George Floyd, and she emphasizes that the current state of songwriting is especially perilous for writers from marginalized groups and without family money to fall back upon. “It’s always the long game,” says Red. “And being able to play the long game is about privilege. It’s about if you can afford to play the long game.” Lambert points out that the system also ends up discriminating against older songwriters and those with families — anyone who needs more stability.
Red’s organization is still going strong, but another advocacy effort, launched with much press fanfare in 2021, has quietly collapsed, according to numerous songwriters and others in the industry. In March of that year, a group of 15 prominent songwriters announced something they called the Pact, an open letter in which they pledged not to give publishing percentages or songwriting credit to artists or others who don’t actually contribute to songs. (They did leave a loophole of a “reasonably equivalent/meaningful exchange” for such credits.)
It was a noble goal, an effort to fight a practice that dates back to at least Elvis Presley and continues to be common. Krysiuk, for instance, says Zayn Malik took a songwriting credit and royalties for 2021’s “Unfuckwitable,” which she co-wrote — despite his not being in the room when it was written. (A rep for Malik had no comment.) Scott Harris, a Pact signee who’s co-written hits for Shawn Mendes and the Chainsmokers, recalls being all but blackmailed early in his career: “I had written a song in the room with an artist, and it was a four-way split. The artist wanted to take more or they weren’t going to put the song out, and I let them do it.”
There were very early signs the Pact simply wasn’t going to work. “The day the Pact came out,” says prominent producer-songwriter manager Lucas Keller, “one of the big signers was on an email with me and agreed to give away publishing to a really big artist. So I’m like ‘OK, if y’all are gonna violate this, what’s the point?’ ”
The same forces that created the credit grabbing in the first place led to its continuation. “We like our ability to make different deals for different clients in the free market,” Keller says. “For instance, if a big songwriter makes a Justin Bieber song, [and] Justin Bieber wants 20 percent of the song … how often do big artists’ hits like that come along?” Essentially, many songwriters would rather give away percentages of a potential hit than keep 100 percent of nothing. Warren, one of the initial signatories of the Pact, acknowledges feeling “dishearthened” at its failure to catch on. But she does say it led to fruitful direct conversations with major artists, who had somehow never before contemplated the fact that these royalties are the only stream of income for writers, who don’t tour unless they’re also artists themselves. “It will hopefully impact how they handle themselves going forward,” she says.
Some writers simply see the credit sharing as the cost of doing business. “That’s part of the industry,” says veteran songwriter Sam Hollander, who chronicles his time in the industry in the entertaining new book 21-Hit Wonder: Flopping My Way to the Top of the Charts. “And truthfully, in general, I’m OK with it. My feeling is, if [artists] are gonna go out there and do 150 shows a year singing this thing, wake up to do TV and press in the morning while I’m sitting on my deck smoking a joint? I have no problems in sharing a little piece of the pie.”
The dire state of the songwriting business isn’t merely a moral issue, or even a financial one, writers say. The fact that songwriters have so little incentive to work on what will probably end up an album track has a major effect on the music landscape.
“It’s really hard for someone, especially someone who’s struggling, to wrap their head around writing an interesting song and not just go in trying to write a radio song,” says Warren. “Then all these albums are coming out that are like 13 attempts at a single, versus any dynamics or anything. You can hear what’s happening on a lot of these records. You know that this [artist] has just spent three months in L.A. working with everyone — and everyone, understandably, has tried to get the radio song. And that’s what the album sounds like.”
Depending so heavily on radio, a legacy format that continues to shrink in influence and importance, feels perilous in its own right, like a news organization still making the majority of its money from shrinking print editions. What happens when radio goes away? “I do sometimes feel like there is this big natural disaster about to hit this whole community,” says manager Zach Gurka. “I’ve made my career, and some of my clients have as well, off of pop-radio hit songs. How long do you think terrestrial radio is going to stand for? Twenty years from now, 30 years from now, is AM/FM radio going to be going strong? I’d make a bet that it’s not.” Veteran music attorney Todd Rubenstein uses the example of a client with multiple Top 40 hits. “He’s not sitting around worrying about his streaming royalties,” he says. “But he will if fewer and fewer people get in their car and listen to the radio.”
That would leave TV, movies, and commercials as the only source of real revenue for songwriters. “Syncs are like, ‘Good luck,’ right?” says Rubenstein. “Nobody can plan for that.” That is, unless songwriters shift their focus altogether in an effort to chase that cash. “There’s a whole new category of writers who don’t write for artists,” Griffin says. “It’s all about sync projects.” In those projects, writers will team up with a producer, form what is essentially a fake band, and write songs on demand for streaming shows or commercials.
Few in the industry dispute that songwriters are being wildly underpaid, but a viable solution is hard to find. Negotiating on a case-by-case basis with artists and labels for royalties on master recordings, kill fees, and other special allowances works for elite songwriters, says Gurka, who’s been able to get those for his most successful clients. “But I would love to leave this business one day knowing that there’s a future generation of songwriters that are gonna be able to make a living … and I don’t know if that’s going to be true right now. Unless something changes.”