After a few weeks of rumors and a pair of anonymous social-media posts, a group of top-level songwriters calling themselves the Pact went above ground on Tuesday with a letter calling for an end to the one of the longest-running open secrets of the music industry: the practice of artists demanding credit and publishing for songs they did not write.
Although the initial signatories did not name names of offending artists, the list includes cowriters of songs by such Grammy-level performers as Dua Lipa, Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, the Jonas Brothers, Britney Spears, and many others. The move is being seen as a major initiative to end a practice that has been rampant in the music industry for decades but, as multiple songwriters and others in the community tell Variety, has actually grown worse in recent years as the value of publishing and awareness of that value has risen. Songwriters often go along, on the premise that a smaller percentage of a hit song by a major artist is better than a large percentage of the same song when it isn’t a hit.
However, the signatories of the letter pledge that they “will not give publishing or songwriting credit to an artist who did not create or change the lyric or melody or otherwise contribute to the composition without a reasonably equivalent/ meaningful exchange for all the writers on the song.” The full list of initial signatories is Emily Warren, Ross Golan, Justin Tranter, Savan Kotecha, Tayla Parx, Ian Kirkpatrick, Amy Allen, Scott Harris, Lennon Stella, Billy Mann, Shae Jacobs, Joel Little, Deza and Jordan McGraw.
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It’s a situation songwriters have long been reluctant to speak out about for fear of being blackballed or losing further work with certain artists, which is a frequent threat when they decline to give up a share of their publishing. “There isn’t a songwriter who has released 10 cuts who hasn’t encountered this situation,” one top songwriter tells Variety.
But another reason writers are reluctant to name offending artists is because they believe members of the artists’ teams are often the true culprit.
“Everybody knows about this: managers, labels, publishers, lawyers, everybody,” another top writer says. “I think a lot of the time the artist might be aware, or kind of aware, of what’s happening, but maybe not the full extent. I’m not naming artists’ names unless I can throw their teams under the bus, too.”
Warren, one of the Pact’s main organizers, and her manager Zach Gurka of Ground Up Management are among the few who agreed to speak on the record about the situation.
“The Pact has two main goals,” Warren says. “The first is to create unity in the songwriting community: Nearly every time a writer is faced with a publishing or any kind of deal situation, they’re left to fight on their own, and the idea here is that you’ll have the backing and support of this whole group.”
The second goal is essentially to foster a greater sense of self worth in songwriters. “There are so many things in the industry that are set up to make writers feel dispensable,” Warren continues. “Writers are often told how lucky they are to [work with a certain artist] or have a cut on someone’s album. And because of that, whenever a writer is faced with a tough question or asked to give something up, we think that in order to continue to keep doing this as a career, we have to give in. I spoke with one successful writer the other day who said she agrees to it so she won’t be ‘in the way’ — that is such a sad sentence.”
Gurka says he has encountered asks ranging from 1% to as high as 20%, “with the 15% range being average,” he estimates. Other industry sources tell Variety of superstar artists demanding as much as 30% or even 45% of a song the artist played little to no role in writing, although both Warren and Gurka said they were startled by those figures.
Sometimes it’s not even the percentage as much as the audacity of the ask. “I’ve been asked to give publishing to artists who sang the song exactly like the demo and [often] refused to give anything in exchange,” Warren says, referring to the writer receiving some form of compensation for giving up some of their publishing. “And along with the threat of ‘Oh, we’ll just find another song if you won’t give us x percent,’ there’s been some pretty intense bullying about my lack of worth to a project — and how I should feel lucky, and how it makes perfect sense that this artist should get this much publishing based on who they are, and they threaten that they’re never going to work with me again. This actually came from someone who didn’t used to ask for publishing.
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“We know a lot of the time, it’s a bluff and they back down when you refuse,” she says. “But in recent years they’ve gotten a lot more stubborn about it.”
Gurka chimes in, “This isn’t just Emily, this happening across my roster of songwriters. And something that highlights how normalized it’s become is actually the opposite of what she just described: I often hear, ‘Your client is so amazing, they’re one of our favorite writers and we know the value that they bring, but now our artist has to promote the song for a year so we need 15% or we’re gonna have to find another song,’” he sighs. “I can’t tell if that’s better or worse.”
The Pact was launched several months ago by a group comprising Warren and six other writers, all of whom recently had received a series of particularly egregious asks. She and other writers are quick to say that many of the artists who are making unreasonable demands for credit often do collaborate on songs on a level greater than the “change a word, take a third [of the publishing],” as the industry catchphrase for nominal songwriting contributions states. But those artists are also demanding pieces of other songs that they played no substantive role in writing.
“This isn’t songwriters against artists or labels or producers,” Warren stresses. “We all need to recognize that we’re participating in this business together: Obviously, without the songwriters there are no songs, and without songs there’s no tour, merch, brand partnerships, and so on. I’m not saying the song is the most important part, but it’s definitely not the least important, and songwriters are often compensated that way.”
Tranter, one of the most successful pop songwriters working today, declined to discuss his own experiences because of that success. “For me, the point of doing this is actually not about me — through years of hard work and luck I have been able to succeed in a system that is very damaged and corrupt, and have had all of my dreams come true, artistically and financially. So this is not about my personal experience at all,” he says. “I want to be a part of the Pact so the next generation of songwriters aren’t taken advantage of because they’re desperate to pay their rent.”
However, when asked whether he is still on the receiving end of such demands, even at his level of success, he replies, “The business is definitely still broken and songwriters are definitely the least respected people in our industry, no matter how big of a songwriter you become.”
While his perspective is seconded by Warren, it also comes with a slightly veiled warning. “All of us are doing this for the next generation of songwriters — they won’t be able to tell their stories if we don’t take care of them.” But, she adds, “This is a much worse way for people to find out that an artist doesn’t write their own songs than doing fair business.”
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