Rob Thomas: Treat songwriters like other copyright owners and eliminate government regulation of royalties

Rob Thomas rockin’ out.
Rob Thomas rockin’ out.
Image: AP Photo/Chris Polk
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Think about the most personal, emotional thing you’ve ever gone through in your life. Heartbreak or joy, sadness or elation, pain or love. Imagine writing down how you feel and telling it to an audience of thousands or hearing it broadcast on TV, the radio, or in a bar. That’s the life of a professional songwriter.

Now imagine writing about those experiences and creating something that is deeply meaningful to you, only to have it devalued by big businesses and the US government. Unfortunately, that’s also the life of a songwriter, thanks to an outdated and overreaching regulatory system that limits our ability to obtain a fair market rate for our music.

These regulations aren’t just decades-old—first written in 1941— but they’re out of step with what’s actually happening in the marketplace, both here in the US and abroad. If we don’t update these regulations, we run a real risk of losing out on the next generation of great music creators.  And now that my son Maison has decided to follow in my footsteps as a musician, I’ve never felt stronger about protecting the future of songwriting.

Back when Matchbox Twenty’s first album debuted in 1996, both songwriters and performers could make a decent living purely from the sales of albums or CDs, but today no one buys music anymore, they stream it. And that’s fine if, like me, you’ve been touring internationally for 20 years, making money off ticket sales and merchandise. But not all songwriters are performers and therefore don’t have the same access to these kinds of income streams. What this shift to streaming means for songwriters is that more and more of our income depends on royalties earned when their song is streamed on a music streaming service.  I’ve been very fortunate in my career and I want to use the voice I have to help create a fairer world for the future writers out there. 

The problem is that due to these regulations that limit songwriters’ ability to fairly obtain these royalties, it currently takes an average of one million plays across the top streaming services for a songwriter to earn about $170. That’s all the money a songwriter earns when a song goes big. Imagine what it’s like for people who don’t have a hit on their hands? How do they stand to earn a living and put food on the table for their families?

American songwriters, composers and music publishers are some of the most heavily-regulated small business owners and entrepreneurs in the country because three-fourths of the income that songwriters receive is subject to federal regulation. This isn’t the case for other copyright owners. Artists, authors, directors, designers; they are all able to negotiate the value of their work in the free market.

And you better believe the big, multibillion-dollar, Wall Street-traded music streaming companies are happy to take advantage of these regulations to pay songwriters less than fair value for their work and are actively fighting updates to these regulations so they can continue to build their businesses on the backs of songwriters.

What we need is for policymakers in Washington to stand with songwriters in support of reasonable reforms for the modern music marketplace. What we’re asking for isn’t complicated. We’re just asking for songwriters to have the same chance at the American dream as everyone else.

That way, we can continue to commemorate the memories of music fans the world over. After all, it all starts with the song and isn’t that worth saving?