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‘If we don’t get paid, songs don’t get made’: Songwriters take to the streets against Spotify

A man holding a microphone and rapping in front of protesters holding placards.
Artists and songwriters gathered on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood to protest Spotify’s payment rates.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)
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Songwriter Kennedi Lykken, 24, has penned tracks for Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande and Britney Spears and won a Grammy Award. But she’s worried she may need a second, more stable job as well.

“I have songwriter friends who sell pics of their feet on OnlyFans,” she said, with a grim laugh, outside of SoHo House West Hollywood. She was one of about 100 professional musicians who’d gathered on Monday afternoon to protest the payouts and priorities of audio streaming giant Spotify.

On one of the ritziest blocks in SoCal — the former home to Spotify’s offices — Lykken wondered how long her artistic aspirations can remain sustainable in the streaming era.

“My last royalty check was $432,” Lykken said. “I’m not ungrateful, but I can’t live on that. Honestly, I liked working at a restaurant in my hometown of 1,000 people better than working for free here.”

This year, Spotify came into the crosshairs of several different activist movements. Legendary artists like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell removed their music from the platform because of the vaccine misinformation spread by the company’s flagship podcaster, Joe Rogan, who is paid a reported $200 million by Spotify. R&B singer India Arie joined Young and Mitchell after calling out Rogan’s history of using racist slurs on air with little consequence. Other musicians drew attention to the fraction of a penny that the service pays artists per stream, even before Spotify divvies it up with labels, publishers and so on.

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Monday’s protest, helmed by L.A. music industry activist group the 100 Percenters, sought to add an aggrieved party to that list: the people who write the songs you love. Songwriters, the group contends, have suffered uniquely in the streaming era, for reasons that could be changed through law or company policy.

“If you won’t let us in the room, we’ll be out here on the street,” said Tiffany Red, the group’s 35-year-old founder. She’s written for Zendaya and Jennifer Hudson but co-founded the nonprofit in 2020 to push back against what she and her fellow protesters believe is a disproportionately low payment rate for songwriters (especially fellow writers of color), and to raise funds for struggling peers. As passing cars on Sunset honked in support, Red said she still felt invisible to the streaming giants: “People will say, ‘Oh, you’re a ghostwriter.’ I’m not a ghost, I’m a person.”

People holding placards and protesting.
Songwriters protest against Spotify in West Hollywood on Monday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

On Monday, the mood was feisty outside SoHo House, a private club frequented by well-heeled L.A. entertainment executives. Spotify had offices in the same building but has since moved to a huge private office campus in the Arts District of downtown L.A. “They moved up but we wanted to show that we’re still stuck in the same place,” Red said.

A representative for Spotify did not reply to a request for comment.

Some songwriter colleagues manned a grill while choice get-paid cuts (Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money,” Britney Spears’ “Gimme More”) blared from a P.A. Others flagged down passersby with signs reading “We write the music you fall in love to” and “No budget, no bops.” Red spied super-producer Rodney Jerkins passing by; he gave the protesters a hearty nod of support.

Kaydence Tice, a 30-year-old songwriter, was at the front of the picket line. By all accounts, Tice should be at the peak of her songwriting career: She co-wrote Beyoncé’s Grammy-winning song “Black Parade” and has one of the “7 Rings” that Ariana Grande bought her friends after breaking off her engagement.

“I’ve had two No. 1 hits,” Tice said. “People see me and think, ‘Oh, she can definitely pay rent,’ but I can’t.” Tice said her wife, another professional songwriter, had to leave the industry so somebody could afford to put gas in the car. “People get so excited, like, ‘You’ve been in the room with Ariana!’ But it’s not that exciting if you can’t pay your bills.”

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Dan Omelio, a 38-year-old writer-producer who works as Robopop, has written for Lana Del Rey and Maroon 5. He has a growing family to support — he brought his new baby in a stroller to the sidewalk protest.

“Spotify can spend $300 million to put their name on FC Barcelona’s jersey, but they’re going to court to stop royalty increases?” Omelio said. “When the public hears about this, they’re like, ‘Hold on, that doesn’t seem right.’ If we don’t get paid enough to not have to work two jobs, songs don’t get made.”

One of the protest’s main grievances was Spotify’s resistance to a 2018 ruling from the Copyright Royalty Board that would raise songwriters’ royalties by 44%. These “mechanical” royalty rates (what platforms pay to songwriters to stream songs) are set by the CRB every five years, unlike royalties for master sound recordings. Before 2018, streaming platforms had to pay just 10.5% of their music streaming revenues to songwriters.

Spotify and other streamers sued in response to the CRB’s ruling. Songwriters saw Spotify’s suit as hostile resistance to even a meager raise. The ruling is now bound up in court and has not yet taken effect.

“We have a free market for everything else, but publishing is bound by law,” said Red. “Publishing doesn’t pay enough to survive.”

A man speaks standing in front of a Spotify banner.
Daniel Ek, founder and chief executive officer of Spotify.
(Antoine Antoniol / Getty Images)
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Among the group’s other proposed remedies: a boost in streaming royalties, writer fees and points (a share of the profits from master recordings); stopping executives and artists from demanding unearned shares of publishing; and small benefits like paid meals and day rates for songwriters’ time.

“I have a lot of friends who exited the industry, they got real estate licenses or went to work at labels,” said Heather Bright, 40, a singer-songwriter who records as Bright Lights. “You can feel the oppression and the disrespect when you’re in rooms with people who have million-dollar homes while I have nothing.”

No one here was under any illusion that streaming isn’t a permanent force in music. Glamour and acclaim are nice to have — but they don’t keep you fed at the end of a day’s work.

“You know those Spotify ‘Secret Genius’ awards for songwriters?” Lykken said. “Well, I got one, and they sent me a sweatshirt.”

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