Sam Barsh

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How It Really Works: Songwriter Sam Barsh On Success In The Streaming Age

The multi-platinum music creator discusses the reality of making a living as a songwriting in the streaming age

Advocacy/Apr 26, 2019 - 08:42 pm

What does it take to make a living as a songwriter in today's music industry? The answer may surprise you. Multi-platinum songwriter, producer and keyboardist Sam Barsh would know. His smash-hit credits include co-writer on Aloe Blacc's "The Man," writer and keyboardist on Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp A Butterfly, contributions to albums by Anderson .Paak, BJ The Chicago Kid, Ledisi and many more.

We sat down with Barsh to hear his perspective from the front lines of music creating as a living, and his insights are powerful. Below, Barsh shines a light on the reality of making a living as a songwriter in the streaming age and provides valuable advice to aspiring songwriters and a glimpse at why all music creators can find optimism in the recently passed Music Modernization Act.

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As a major songwriter how has the streaming age affected your bottom line?

The biggest change that streaming has brought to the songwriting business is the replacement of physical or download sales with streaming, and the corresponding difference in revenue. Physical sales continue to disappear while streaming is the way of the present and the future.

The mechanical royalty payment for a physical or download sale of a song is $0.091 per sale, while the average streaming mechanical royalty payment is $0.00043 per stream. (The $0.00043 per stream figure is the average per stream payment from Spotify, which is the most used streaming platform in the US. Apple and Tidal pay more, Google pays less, so the Spotify number is a good median). And since songwriters have their rates set by the U.S Government, we can’t really go out and sell our songs to those services for what they should be worth.

The good news is the Music Modernization Act is set to change that [with the institution of a market-based "willing buyer, willing seller" standard], and that’s exciting and encouraging, but at the end of the day the new royalty rates will still be set by the government and as we’ve seen recently subject to appeals and court fights. So even though I have a catalog of over 100 songs, a large number of which are with major artists, including four songs featured on No. 1 albums on the Billboard 200 and multiple Gold and Platinum plaques, that doesn't translate into riches.

Could you go into more detail on the royalties you earn? 

To paint a very clear picture of how most songwriters earn money from streaming, let's examine the “album cut,” or a song that wasn't a single, on a major platinum album.

Fifth Harmony's [second album] 7/27 is a perfect example to use, since it's an album by a huge act that has a lot of different songwriters on it… It's a quintessential professional pop songwriter album, if you will.

Like almost every platinum album, 7/27 was led by its singles. On Spotify, “Work from Home” has almost 900 million streams, “All in My Head (Flex)” has close to 300 million, and “That's My Girl” has 130 million plus.

By contrast, seven of the songs on the album have less than 22 million streams each on Spotify. Taking into account that Spotify has a little less than 40 percent market share for streaming, let’s just approximate that each of those seven album cuts streamed 50 million times total across all platforms.

With the average streaming rate mentioned before of $0.00043 per stream, that means a song with 50 million streams earns $21,500. With an average of 5 writers per song on 7/27, assuming in this case that they all got even splits, each writer on one of these cuts would earn around $4,300 from streaming.

Considering that album cuts are much less likely to get major sync licenses or radio play, in many cases that $4,300 is practically all the songwriter will make from landing a song with an A-list pop act. Of course, artists like Fifth Harmony still sell some physical copies, but that is a small number in the scheme of overall sales. And keep in mind that there are songs on major platinum albums with WAY less than 50 million streams. Also, most writers have either an admin deal or a publishing deal, which will take anywhere from 10 to 50 percent of their earnings.

Contrast this with if Fifth Harmony had released this album in 2003 with the same numbers. For the entire CD era, if people wanted to buy an artist's single, they would purchase the album that the song was on. Given that “Work From Home” went 5x Platinum in the USA alone, for this purpose we'll assume people would have purchased 5 million copies of the album. With a statutory mechanical rate at that time of around 9 cents per song, each song on the album would have generated $450,000 from U.S. sales, with the individual songwriter's 20 percent of one song earning them $90,000 in US mechanicals alone, as opposed to today's number of $4,300 from the entire world.

This analysis is not an exact science, but it paints the picture of how things have changed.

In light of the difficulties of earning a living in the streaming age, what would you say to an aspiring hit songwriter?

First of all, I would say don’t quit writing songs if that's what you love to do. It’s part of our DNA as writers to create songs, and it is a hell of a lot more fun than most other things people do for a living. However, if you’re in it just to chase hits and make money, you need to know what the stakes are. 

Be forewarned that if your primary goal in becoming a songwriter is to get rich, your odds are infinitesimal. You’re not only competing with millions of writers for one of the top 30-50 songs (the songs that generally make real money), you also have to account for the fact that most hits today have between three and six writers on them, so the pie is divided accordingly. 

Also, the concept of an “evergreen” copyright has changed, since streaming has put a major dent into catalog sales for older songs.

"I was told recently by a legacy artist who had big hits in the 70s that their catalog royalties went down about 70 percent since streaming took over." -Sam Barsh

Given that most hit songs generate the majority of their revenue during a two to three-year peak period, you would have to write multiple hit singles and/or have a substantial percentage of a global super-smash to make the “set for life” money that many people think comes from writing just one hit song. It's definitely not impossible, but you can have a lot of success as a songwriter and still just be living royalty check to royalty check.

On the positive side, streaming is a great tool for artists. So if you're a writer/artist, self-releasing music is a way to both gain exposure and make money. It's much easier to get somebody to check out your music via streaming than it was when you just had to hope someone who never heard of you would randomly decide to buy your CD at the record store. And payments for the master side of recordings are about 10 times higher than mechanical streaming royalties for songwriters. 

Lastly, for my musician friends that are dabbling in songwriting and production, know that you’re competing with people who do nothing but write songs and produce, and have been honing their craft with as much dedication as we have with our instruments. I myself have put in my 10,000 hours at least threefold, as a musician, a songwriter and as a producer and engineer. And it still took me 10 years of seriously working at songwriting to write major records.

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What’s one tip you’d give that a young songwriter might not be aware of?

Be mindful of splits ahead of time. I recommend having a conversation with your co-writers directly, before getting management involved, whenever possible. That doesn’t always prevent somebody from tripping or going back on their word, but if you can communicate directly with your collaborators and agree on splits before the song gets placed or recorded, it will alleviate headaches later on. 

You mentioned your role as a producer earlier. Can you talk a bit about what it’s like to be a producer?

One of my favorite things about being a producer is that it requires me to utilize the entire range of my musical, emotional and intellectual skill sets. I'm a people person, and every situation is different, so I always get an intrinsic feel for the energies in the room and do my best to facilitate a day of great work. Making the artists, writers, musicians, engineers and anyone else who happens to be in the room feel comfortable and stay focused is essential, because most of the time they're looking to the producer to set, or at least guide, the tone of the session.

All that being said, nowadays producers spend a lot of time working alone. In modern pop, hip-hop and R&B music, producers are responsible for creating the instrumental tracks, hiring outside musicians if necessary, recording and editing the vocals (sometimes with help of engineers and vocal producers), editing audio, adding effects, making requested changes from artists and labels, and delivering a quality rough mix and individual audio files (aka stems). In my experience, the average pop track takes a producer 30-50 hours to complete, often more.

I produce jazz records as well, which tend to take less time because in most cases the artist has selected the material and gotten the arrangements done in advance of the session, and the recordings are usually done by a live band all at once in the span of 2-3 days. Jazz producing is largely about time management and setting a good vibe in the tracking sessions, helping the artist pick takes and solos, and shaping the sound of the instruments in conjunction with the tracking and mix engineers.

For all of this work, producers receive an upfront fee upon delivery of the final product and a backend royalty [The Music Modernization Act guarantees direct payment of this royalty if you register with SoundExchange]. Despite the fact that a lot of people may not understand all it is that we do, as you can see from the amount of skill and time it requires to create and take a record across the finish line, the work of a producer has big-time value and should be treated as such.

Lastly, what can songwriters do to ensure their rights are protected and demand better compensation?

There’s no union for songwriters, but there are organizations like the Recording Academy or Songwriters of North America that we can join that fight for our rights and compensation. These groups were instrumental in getting the Music Modernization Act passed.

However, even with these groups fighting for our rights, according to US law anybody can record any song without permission, and any terrestrial or streaming radio station can play any recording without permission, as long as they pay the statutory rate of compensation to the rights holders. Without the ability to withhold the product, and with compensation rates set by government, we don’t have much leverage in that fight. 

The exceptions to this are for the first recording of a song, and for sync licensing in film, television and commercials. 

If you write a song that you believe is a smash meant for a major artist, but a label wants to have an unknown artist record it, or an indie artist wants to record it, you have the right to say no, as long as the song has never been officially released on another recording. However, once the song has been recorded and released, anyone has the right to record it again.

And if someone wants to license your song for a show, film or commercial, you have the right to negotiate the fee or to say no.

The underlying theme of all of this is that knowledge is power. The more we all stay aware of the realities of our business and communicate with each other, the better off we all will be. Earning money as a songwriter or music producer is the definition of art intersecting commerce, but a lot of us ignore the commerce part of it. Nobody would accept a job in another field without knowing how much it paid first, and a contractor wouldn't build a custom home for a client without first negotiating a price. If we can approach our work the same way, it could go a long way to convincing our clients and consumers to acknowledge the value of our work.

The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect official positions of the Recording Academy.

GRAMMYs On The Hill 2019: Music & Politics Unite At Washington's Largest Advocacy Event For Music

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Lauren Daigle and Tammy Hurt in a GOTH meeting with Congressman Moran

Photo: Leigh Vogel

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The House Of Representatives Has Passed The TICKET Act: Here's What You Need To Know

This legislative success for music fans comes just two short weeks after the Recording Academy's GRAMMYs on the Hill Advocacy Day, and passed by an overwhelming bipartisan vote.

Advocacy/May 17, 2024 - 09:32 pm

In an exciting step forward for the music community, the House of Representatives recently passed H.R. 3950, the Transparency In Charges for Key Events Ticketing (TICKET) Act, by an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 388-24. This legislative success comes just two short weeks after the Recording Academy's GRAMMYs on the Hill Advocacy Day.

During the GRAMMYs on the Hill Advocacy Day, over sixty GRAMMY winners, nominees, and Recording Academy executives met with members of Congress to push for ticketing reform, including the House's TICKET Act and the Senate's Fans First Act. Throughout the day, the artist advocates told lawmakers how the broken ticket marketplace impacts their daily lives. Among the group was 2-time GRAMMY winner, Lauren Daigle, who detailed her experiences with bots and resellers driving up ticket prices, emphasizing the impact it has on the individuals hoping to purchase tickets to her shows. These conversations highlighted the importance of protecting the human connection that live music fosters between artists and fans and the clear need for ticket reforms to be passed by congress.

The House-passed TICKET Act brings transparency to the ticketing marketplace by implementing all-in pricing and takes major steps toward ending the harmful practices of speculative ticketing and deceptive websites. The bill, which also guarantees refunds for event cancellations, denotes serious progress in the fight to improve the ticketing marketplace.

The Recording Academy urges the Senate to seize this moment and pass S. 3457, the Fans First Act. The Fans First Act builds upon the House TICKET Act by strengthening its provisions against speculative ticketing and deceptive websites and improving price transparency by not only requiring all-in pricing, but mandating upfront itemization so fans know what they're paying for from the start. The Fans First Act also increases consumer protection by strengthening the BOTS Act and the FTC's ability to enforce any violations.

Upon its passage, Recording Academy CEO, Harvey Mason Jr. expressed gratitude for the bipartisan support and the swift movement of the TICKET Act through the House.

"Today's passage of the TICKET Act by the House of Representatives marks a significant step forward toward improving the concert ticket marketplace. The TICKET Act was a key focus of GRAMMYs on the Hill two weeks ago, and the Recording Academy thanks our Congressional leaders for bringing the bill to a vote shortly after meeting with Academy members.

We now urge the Senate to act quickly to incorporate the strong provisions contained in the Fans First Act and move a comprehensive ticket reform package that will provide transparency and protect artists and their fans. 

The passage of the TICKET Act represents a critical step toward dismantling the predatory practices that undermine this connection. It is a crucial step toward ensuring a more equitable and sustainable marketplace. The legislation not only benefits consumers but also safeguards the livelihoods of artists who depend on fair ticket sales. Its passage proves the power of advocacy and the importance of legislative action in preserving the special bond between artists and their audiences.

As we look forward to the Senate's taking further action on ticketing reform, the Recording Academy will continue to fight for a fairer, more equitable ticketing marketplace that ensures the connection between music makers and fans remains strong and untainted.   

Inside The New York Chapter's Advocacy For The Passage Of A. 127 — How It'd Help Protect Artistic Freedom

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Photo: Lauren Loverde

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Inside The New York Chapter’s Advocacy For The Passage Of A. 127 — How It’d Help Protect Artistic Freedom

At the heart of A.127 is the protection of artistic freedom during legal proceedings. The bill, which has already passed in the Senate, seeks to create standards for when an artist's creative work may be used in criminal trials.

Advocacy/May 15, 2024 - 03:30 pm

On Tuesday, May 7, members of the Recording Academy’s New York chapter took to the state capitol in Albany. Their mission? To advocate for the passage of A.127, a crucial piece of legislation designed to safeguard the creative works of artists across New York.

At the heart of A.127 is the protection of artistic freedom during legal proceedings. The bill, which has already passed in the Senate, seeks to create standards for when an artist's creative work may be used in criminal trials. If enacted into law, this measure would be a significant step towards ensuring that creators can express themselves freely without fear of their work being weaponized against them.

During the Albany Advocacy Day, Recording Academy advocates held meetings with the Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, Codes Chairman, Jeffrey Dinowitz, Assembly sponsor, Catalina Cruz, along with key members of the Assembly Codes Committee including, Gary Pretlow, Andrew Hevesi, Linda B. Rosenthal, John Zaccaro, Jr., Kenneth Zebrowski. In addition to these meetings, Recording Academy members met with Lieutenant Governor Antonio Delgado, the powerful Assembly Black, Hispanic, and Puerto Rican Caucus, and the Assembly Codes Staff. Many key Senators stopped by meetings to reiterate their support for the legislation, including Senate sponsor and Codes Chair, Jamaal Bailey.

Advocates included New York Chapter President Torae Carr, iconic rap artist and producer Papoose, producer and composer Ray Angry, and CEO of 300 Entertainment Kevin Liles. Additionally, Granville Mullins, GRAMMY Nominated Songwriter/Musician, Nathaniel Reichman, GRAMMY Nominated Producer/Mixer, Cassandra Kubinski, Singer/Songwriter, William Derella, Artist Manager and Lynn Gonzalez, Partner, Granderson Des Rochers, LLP were in attendance.

While leaving Albany, Papoose shared an impassioned plea to his followers on Instagram to support the effort.

Just one week later, on May 14, the Assembly Codes Committee advanced the bill out of committee to the Rules Committee, Chaired by the Speaker, priming it for full consideration by the Assembly in the coming weeks.

One of the key issues Academy advocates highlighted in their meetings regarding A.127 is the disproportionate impact that the current practices have on certain communities, particularly Black and Brown artists, who often find their work unfairly scrutinized and misinterpreted in legal settings. While the legislation is not genre-specific, it acknowledges the historical targeting of hip hop and rap artists and seeks to rectify this by requiring prosecutors to show the relevance and admissibility of creative works in court.

The significance of A.127 cannot be overstated, particularly in a state as culturally rich and economically influential as New York. The music industry is a large part of the state's economy, providing over 200,000 jobs and contributing close to $20 billion to its GDP. With a vibrant community of 129,000 songwriters, New York needs to enact this critical legislation that will protect the state's music community.

The Recording Academy’s continued advocacy for A.127 only further highlights the Academy’s dedication to protecting the rights of music creators and upholding the fundamental principles of free expression. As the bill moves forward, it is essential for lawmakers to recognize the importance of protecting creative freedom and ensure that New York remains a beacon of artistic expression.

Inside The Inaugural GRAMMYs On The Hill Future Forum, Exploring The Impact Of AI On The Music Community

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(L-R) Todd Dupler, Carl "Kokayi Walker, Dani Deahl

Photo: Paul Morigi

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Inside The Inaugural GRAMMYs On The Hill Future Forum, Exploring The Impact Of AI On The Music Community

Designed to provide a space to explore the most pressing issues facing music, this momentous occasion served as a pivotal platform to delve into the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the music community.

Advocacy/May 10, 2024 - 01:48 pm

On Friday, May 3, an innovative event unfolded in the heart of Washington, D.C., as the Recording Academy in collaboration with the Human Artistry CampAIgn orchestrated the inaugural GRAMMYs on the Hill Future Forum. Designed to provide a space to explore the most pressing issues facing music, this momentous occasion served as a pivotal platform to delve into the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the music community.

The afternoon commenced with a series of captivating panel discussions, each curated to explore both the promise and the peril that AI presents to music makers. Moderated by Todd Dupler, the Chief Advocacy & Public Policy Officer at the Recording Academy, the first panel featured esteemed industry figures including Dani Deahl, a distinguished DJ, producer, Governor for the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter, and Head of Communications and Creator Insights for BandLab, alongside Kokayi, a GRAMMY-nominated artist renowned for his prowess as a producer, emcee, vocalist, and thought leader.

Insights flowed as panelists dissected the relationship between AI and human creativity, shedding light on the transformative potential of AI-driven tools in music production, composition, and distribution. Dani Deahl demonstrated live how she ethically uses AI as a tool to enhance her music, including stem separation, voice or tone replacement, and song generation. One demonstration used tone-altering AI to record Kokayi and make him sound like a female pop artist.

Deahl explained how this AI technology represented an ethical, pro-artist approach to AI because the artist whose voice was used entered into a licensing agreement with the platform, the voice recording was pulled from works specifically created for the platform, and the artist is compensated every time her tone is used — including during the demonstration. The panel went on to discuss how artists embraced new technology in the past and how present technology changes the way we create music.

Following this illuminating discussion, the stage was set for the second panel, moderated by Michael Lewan, the Managing Director of Advocacy & Public Policy at the Academy. Dr. Moiya McTier, a Senior Advisor at the Human Artistry Campaign, joined with Juan Winans, a three-time GRAMMY nominated artist and songwriter, and Michael Hendrix, the Policy Director for Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee. Diving deeper into the threats that AI poses to artists and creators, the panelists discussed policymaking when it comes to AI—including the ELVIS Act, which recently became law in Tennessee and is the first law of its kind to protect individuals from AI models misusing their name, image, and likeness.

The Future Forum is one of many ways the Recording Academy has been engaged in the conversations surrounding AI. Last year, the Recording Academy also teamed up with members of the music community for the Human Artistry CampAIgn which launched in March of 2023. This Campaign is a coalition focused on protecting human art and creativity as artificial intelligence continues to develop. In addition to joining this coalition, the Recording Academy has played a significant role in safeguarding human creativity and helping creators navigate artificial intelligence.

Days prior during the GRAMMYs on the Hill Advocacy Day, the Recording Academy brought together 60+ GRAMMY winners and nominees along with Academy executives to advocate for legislation such as No AI FRAUD Act in the House of Representatives and the Senate's No FAKES Act discussion draft, which protects artists image and likeness.

As the Future Forum panels ended, the convivial atmosphere transitioned seamlessly into a vibrant reception, where Recording Academy members from the DMV, Philadelphia, and New York convened. Against the backdrop of stimulating conversations and shared insights, attendees exchanged ideas, forged connections, and celebrated the perfect ending to an eventful GRAMMYs on the Hill week.

The Recording Academy will continue to advocate and hold discussions surrounding fostering human connection and artistic excellence in the age of AI and the GRAMMYs on the Hill Future Forum served as a testament to this commitment. As music's biggest week in Washington, D.C. reached its crescendo, the inaugural Future Forum reinstated the importance of a future where AI augments — rather than deters — human creativity.

Here's What Went Down At Advocacy Day 2024: The Fight For AI Safeguards And Ticketing Reform Hit Capitol Hill

Artists attend the GRAMMYs on the Hill x White House Advocacy Day at the White House
Artists attend the GRAMMYs on the Hill x White House Advocacy Day at the White House on May 01, 2024 in Washington, DC

Photo: Shannon Finney/Getty Images for The Recording Academy

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Here's What Went Down At Advocacy Day 2024: The Fight For AI Safeguards And Ticketing Reform Hit Capitol Hill

At Advocacy Day 2024 the centerpiece of the annual GRAMMYs On The Hill, music advocates took to Capitol Hill to fight for music peoples' rights — chiefly involving AI and ticketing.

Advocacy/May 8, 2024 - 01:15 am

"We have a short window of time this morning, where we're going to download a lot of information into your brain." So told Todd Dupler, the Recording Academy's Chief Advocacy & Public Policy Officer, early in the morning of May Day, to a small, still-waking-up, but attentive crowd at the Hamilton Live in Washington, D.C.

After Michael Lewan — the Recording Academy's Managing Director of State and Federal Advocacy — laid down some logistical ground rules, the throng set forth into the pre-summer mugginess to advocate for two crucial policy needs.

The first is calling on Congress to protect the image, likeness and voice of individual creators from AI fakes through legislative measures such as the No AI FRAUD Act in the House of Representatives and the Senate's No FAKES Act discussion draft. 

The second is reforming the live event ticket marketplace to better protect artists and fans through legislation including the Fans First Act and a similar House bill, the TICKET Act.

After the morning briefing, groups with advocates went to the U.S. Capitol for dozens of meetings with bipartisan and bicameral legislators to seek their support for these important issues and bills. Throughout the morning, Academy members met with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-LA), House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY), Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) and Peter Welch (D-VT), along with multiple House Chairs and Ranking Members, and other influential leaders.

After these initial meetings, the GRAMMYs On The Hill 2024 advocates stopped by the historic Nancy Pelosi Cannon Caucus Room to park, dine on lunch, and meet with more key champions.

After introductory remarks from Lewan, the No AI Fraud Act's lead sponsor, Rep. María Elvira Salazar (R-FL) — who Lewan praised as "the brains behind it" — took the podium. "Your identity is in danger because of artificial intelligence," Salazar asserted.

And she drilled down into why — which involved portents far afield from music peoples' rights.

"Did you know that right now, someone with not very good intentions, can grab the image and voice and likeness of your daughter or so, and transfer that information to make pornography?" Salazar said. "Someone produces your voice and likeness and insults a boss, and you may be fired."

Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA), Salazar's lead co-sponsor of the No AI Fraud Act, echoed the congresswoman's sentiment. "It's not just about the use of your likeness," she said. "You have the right to ask permission to get compensated for it.

Following the lunch briefing, the 60 plus advocates headed back across the nation's capital to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a special roundtable discussion with senior members of the Biden-Harris Administration. While at the White House, advocates were briefed on AI policy, ticket reforms, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the president's work on gun violence, before a special conversation with Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. 

And with that, with another successful Advocacy Day in the bag, music advocates went home assured that they'd made a phenomenal difference in the music landscape.

To those who would abuse the ticketing system — meet the true music fans. And, to those who'd leverage artificial intelligence against real peoples' autonomies — meet human power.

The 2024 GRAMMYs On The Hill Awards were sponsored by City National Bank and benefited the GRAMMY Museum.

How The House's No AI FRAUD Act And Tenn.'s ELVIS Act Will Protect Human Creativity