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How will songwriters fare in a world of Spotify and Pandora?

Streaming services like Spotify and Pandora offer millions of songs for listeners for a small fee each month, but artists often make a fraction of a penny per play.
Streaming services like Spotify and Pandora offer millions of songs for listeners for a small fee each month, but artists often make a fraction of a penny per play.
Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

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Los Angeles' music industry is made up of more than just multi-platinum-selling singers and veneered rock bands: Behind the scenes, songwriters are just as involved in creating hit albums as the bands themselves.

But in the 15 years since online music debuted, the marketplace has changed completely: services like iTunes, Pandora and Spotify have begun to dominate music, and songwriters may be struggling more than most as the industry tries to keep up.

Darrell Brown has been a songwriter for over 30 years. Whether you've streamed it online, spun it on vinyl or popped it into a tape deck, you've likely heard Darrell Brown's music. He's worked with names like Dolly Parton, Wilson Phillips and Neil Young.

The Sherman Oaks resident remembers the good old days of the music industry: the time of beanies, of LA Gear, of flannel shirts tied around the waist — the '90s. Back then, he says, a songwriter could make a living pretty easily. You didn't even need to write a hit single. If the album did well, you were set.

"There's $60,000 just from one record that was a big record," says Brown. "And no one besides the fans might've heard that song."

In 1999,  the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry reported that consumers around the world spent nearly $30 billion on music. Last year, it was half that. To make ends meet, bands and singers can opt to play more shows or sell more merchandise. 

But songwriters don't tour. Their income comes exclusively from album sales, downloads, radio play and other royalties — and after the performers, record labels and other middlemen get their cut, songwriters are left with just a fraction of the money earned.

Brown says he's cut down on writing gigs to do more producing and arranging — he gets paid up front for that.

DA Wallach is a singer, songwriter and the artist in residence for the music streaming service Spotify — you might've heard his work in a video directed by Odd Future's Tyler the Creator:

Wallach acknowledges that the Internet's created a problem for the music industry, but he thinks it also holds the solution. Wallach says Spotify subscribers pay $120 a year for music, which is more than twice that of the average music consumer.

"My fundamental belief, and the belief that brought me into Spotify in the first place, was that the only way out of this predicament would be to convince consumers that they should pay for music again," says Wallach.  "And that the only way to do that would be by offering them a compelling music experience that was legal and paid."

With streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, people can listen to as much ad-supported music as they want or pay a small amount a month to go ad-free. 

Spotify pays artists based on how much a song is played. The more a fan listens, the more money artists make. But for songwriters, that amounts to just a fraction of a penny per play.

The new industry shift has made the process of marketing and recording albums very different. Glen Ballard is a songwriter and producer who's worked with Michael Jackson and Paula Abdul. He also co-wrote "Jagged Little Pill," the hit album that launched Alanis Morissette's music career.

Ballard says that in the digital world, there might not be a lot of incentive for writers and labels to take risks on untested artists like Morissette.

"It completely destroyed a kind of art form," says Ballard, "in which people like myself would spend an inordinate amount of time making sort of these sonic portraits of deeply personal records."

If a songwriter doesn't want to deal with streaming services, too bad: most don't hold the rights to their music. Publishing companies like ASCAP and BMI don't like this model much either, and they're pushing legislation in Congress to reform how copyright negotiations work.    

DA Wallach with Spotify says fighting with streaming services won't help, and it's not in artists' interests anyway. He adds that if his company reaches its goal of 40 million paid subscribers —more than six times what they have now — Spotify can pay out as much as 4 cents per play.

"Streaming in general is gonna come to constitute the majority of music consumption in the world," said Wallach. "The only way that happens is if we succeed at convincing consumers to spend much more on music than they currently do. If we can do that, the industry is restored to something approaching what it used to be."

It can be the good old days again, just without the beanies and plaid this time. But it has to happen, first.