“All About That Bass,” a bouncy pop song that dominated Top 40 charts last year, has been played 178 million times on music streaming services. Yet Kevin Kadish, a Grammy-nominated music producer who co-wrote the song with its singer Meghan Trainor, says he only received $5,679 from all those streams.
“That’s as big a song as a songwriter can have in their career—and number one in 78 countries,” Kadish complained at a US congressional roundtable on music copyright this week in Tennessee. “But you’re making $5,600. How do you feed your family?”
Kadish told his story before several US lawmakers, who are on a listening tour to review whether the country’s old copyright laws still hold up in the digital age. Doug Collins, a US congressman who is sponsoring legislation to improve royalty payouts for music publishers and songwriters, told The Tennessean after the roundtable that it’s clear “there is inequality at this point” in the music industry—though how to best tackle the inequality is a source of disagreement.
Cases like Kadish’s are not unusual. Many artists and songwriters in recent years have complained about receiving disappointingly low payouts for hit songs on streaming services, and pop star Taylor Swift publicly called out streaming giants Spotify and Apple Music last year for its stingy royalty rates. Artists on Spotify currently earn a fraction of a US cent every time their song is played.
Streaming services aren’t the only players in this. Record labels insist on taking big chunks of profit, and the music industry overall has failed to adequately define the scope of digital copyrights.
“If you look at all the money that comes into Spotify a month, about 30% Spotify keeps to run their business, and 60% is paid to the owner of the sound recording, or the record label,” Allen Bargfrede, a business professor at the Berklee College of Music who leads an initiative to rethink the music industry, tells Quartz. The remaining 10%, Bargfrede says, goes to those who make the music—often split in complicated ways between performing artists, multiple songwriters, and other musicians, since separate copyrights exist for a song’s composition and recording.
Though streaming services have bore the brunt of artists’ frustration thus far, Bargfrede argues that it’s actually the clunky “back end” of the music industry—i.e. all the copyright fine print that hasn’t been properly updated for the digital age—that’s diverting money away from artists.
“People are getting low checks, but sometimes the stories are sensationalized. There are a lot of people taking cuts in the middle,” he says. “I don’t think enough attention is being paid to the royalty splits and cuts.”
Artists and songwriters like Kadish are bringing their complaints to Congress to accelerate a rethinking of the status quo. The stakes may finally be high enough to prompt some change: Streaming revenues in the US jumped 23% in the first half of 2015 alone.