How A Song Works

I don't know anyone who doesn't listen to music. From the guy who has it on in the background to help him get through an exam or tax season to the girl who marks every friend, every love, every day with a song that, years on, will sweep her back to magical moment after magical moment in her life and never let her forget. 

I make some of those songs. Not many as important as the ones I described, but some. I'm proud of that. It took my entire life and my entire focus to be able to do it well. And when I finally got paid for it, I was over the moon. I bought a used Nissan Xterra and put $13000 down on a condo. 

You don't get paid for becoming a creator.

Not like a doctor. Doctors get an education, then they start working as they learn. Years before performing his first surgery, a doctor is getting a paycheck.

Not like a farmer. While a farmer learns his trade he's doing shit job after shit job learning every little nuance of how a farm is kept alive and grown.

Not like a policeman. Policemen get paid to go to police academy.

Even after a songwriter is a master at his craft, he doesn't get paid until someone uses one of his creations. The singer doesn't pay us to record the song. They just record it and put it out.
Then what?

People buy it! The record label says "we want $1.29 for this song". Before, it was $.99 then they raised it. And people paid it. That's how business works. But you know what. The US Department Of Justice long ago set up a law that effectively said that no matter what people pay for a song, the writer can only make 9.1 cents! That's it, no discussion. What?

Does that even sound like America? I mean, to me it sounds like pre WWII Poland or something. We're supposed to operate in a free market right? Negotiate for what something's worth? But for the longest time, songwriters were like, "cool we make ok, we can raise a kid on that and take a vacay from time to time."

Then Streaming showed up. I love streaming. The entire history of music in my back pocket is amazing. Thank you Steve Jobs for that! And when the streaming guys were just starting they were like "Hey we can't afford to pay what you guys charge to use your music. Can we get a cut rate?"

Notwithstanding that if I went up to Hertz and said, "Hey all I can afford for this Land Rover is like 13 bucks a day. You guys cool?" they would have had me dragged away by a dude who may or may not have a full set of teeth. But whatever, the labels were all "sure we'll let you little guys in for cheap and we can all play ball." 

WAIT!!!

Let me just say here, that no one asked writers about this. You see, a song is the words and chords and the melody. Sing Born In The USA real quick....I'll wait...
Ok, that's enough. You sounded great. What your ears were just hearing was the song. That belongs to Bruce Springsteen. Technically you owe him a tiny bit of money for what you just did. But since, like all other songwriters, The Boss isn't a dick he does't care about that. He's just glad you know it.

Now pull up Born In The USA on your favorite platform. Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, MP3 player, whatever. Play it....
THAT is the RECORDING of the song. That's the one you know. While the song is in there, the recording is all the musicians coming together and the mixer and producer putting it all together.  THAT is owned by Columbia Records. Columbia owns that unique collection of sounds because they paid to have it created and to market it. But the SONG is still inside the RECORDING. So you have to pay both the creator of the SONG, the writer, and the creator of the RECORDING, the label and artist.

How much should each get? We know how much it costs to make an album. It's just money and a little time.

How much does it take to write a song? A few hours and some guitar strings? Well, Aaron Barker, songwriter for a ton of George Strait songs say it cost him a heart attack. Being dead on an operating table for 6 minutes. Leslie Sacher, writer of dozens of #1 songs said it costs your hometown, sometimes your marriages.

Sorry. Back to streaming. So the labels made deals with the streaming services and said, "Trust, homies. Make the deals with us and we promise to pay the writers. just don't worry about it." Streamer are like, "Cool, don't look a cheap horse in the mouth." 

Flash forward to now. Streaming is TAKING OVER ALL FORMS OF MUSIC DELIVERY. All forms. In 10 years there will be no radio. In 5 years there will be no downloads. So those lowball deals are slowly becoming the only way music makes money at all. Remember that 9.1 cents writers used to make? Well, now every stream makes something like $0.005. And of that, a writer makes maybe 15%. That's $0.00075 per stream. Writers were not asked to participate in these deals. Just given less than a decent waiter would make at a mediocre restaurant. 

Remember buying a Nissan Xterra and raising a kid and maybe taking a vacation? None of that happens for most writers anymore. 

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO WRITE A SONG?

It costs your life. You don't clock out of being a songwriter. You don't vacay away from songwriting. You can't. You shouldn't. We are, every one of us, the Daniel Day-Lewis of our craft. We live these songs until they are so hot, so real in our blood that we have no choice but to drag the razor and spill the truth on the page and into the microphone. Whether happy, angry, in love, ecstatic or sad. And for that we've never asked to be treated fairly, just considered.  

Well fuck us. This is the price a creator pays for loving the art more than the business.


Ghost Town Troubadours are making a documentary.

Shaun Silva, Devin Pence, Regie Hamm, Danny Myrick, Aaron Benward and me.
It will be beautiful. It'll be funny. It'll be entertaining and full of music!


This is the mission of the documentary:
1) To take the mystery out of what we do. It's hard and beautiful. It's like hearing from angels when it's good and like sleeping in concrete when it's bad.

2) To talk to you. About what music means to you. Do you drive to it? Do you make love to it? Were you born to it? Will it be floating over you and your loved ones when they stand with you and send you on? How can it be worthless? Would you keep doing your own job if you could never get a raise?

3)To let you know that we are Americans being cheated by businessmen. At first we were old black bluesmen. Then we were a collection of black, white, Jews, women and Latinos at a building in NewYork City, paid like waiters. Now we are a small army of creators of every sort preparing to demand a seat at the table.

There are people responsible and we will find them. And we will show them to you. And we will ask you to raise your voices with us. Sing our songs. Help protect us in a way that our government hasn't yet.
And hey, its may be just because they don't understand all this I've just told you. But this is the digital age. The only reason anyone is ignorant is because they choose to be. 

9 comments

  • Julie Crawford
    Julie Crawford Tyler,Texas
    Thank you for this documentary. My daughter and her bandmate will be affected by this and as they say "knowledge is power" and there is so much mystery surrounding this business. I went to your FB page because I noticed your writing on music I was listening to over the weekend. Looking forward to seeing the documentary evolve.

    Thank you for this documentary. My daughter and her bandmate will be affected by this and as they say "knowledge is power" and there is so much mystery surrounding this business. I went to your FB page because I noticed your writing on music I was listening to over the weekend. Looking forward to seeing the documentary evolve.

  • Donna Hilton
    Donna Hilton Blytheville Arkansas
    I just want to Thank You for your commitment of support to the National Association of Drug Court Professions, Vet Court, etc. I just returned from NADCP 2017 and once again, was blown away by your rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Then in closing ceremonies, the performances by Ghost Town Troubadors. Please extend my thanks to the other boys in the group for their support as well. Again, thank you so much for your dedication and hard work. Donna

    I just want to Thank You for your commitment of support to the National Association of Drug Court Professions, Vet Court, etc. I just returned from NADCP 2017 and once again, was blown away by your rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Then in closing ceremonies, the performances by Ghost Town Troubadors. Please extend my thanks to the other boys in the group for their support as well. Again, thank you so much for your dedication and hard work.
    Donna

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