The “Musical Theater Songwriting Challenge” is a contest organized by the National Endowment for the Arts that invites high school students interested in musical theater to submit their best original songs. The NEA began the program a few years ago as part of its 50thanniversary celebrations “to strengthen and highlight the creative development of young people and prepare them for the future,” as Endowment head Jane Chu put it. Beginning with a pilot program in just three cities, it met with notable success and went national the following year.
This year there were nearly 200 entries from 36 states. Last month, the NEA brought the six finalists—one of them from Tyler, Texas—to a songwriting workshop in New York City led by professionals from throughout the world of musical theater, and each of the finalists had their song published by the renowned Samuel French, Inc. David Volpini, a junior from Chippewa Valley High School in Macomb County, Michigan was ultimately chosen as the winner. He received a prize of $25,000 from the National Music Publishers Association. The second place winner received $10,000, and the third place finisher got $5,000. That’s one way to affirm talent.
The National Music Publishers Association operates a charitable foundation called “Supporting Our Next Generation of Songwriters” with which it funds all sorts of programs for up and coming songwriters, ranging from this contest to songwriting scholarships.“We all know what a gift great songwriting is to the culture at large, but many do not know how hard it is to make a living writing in the age of streaming,” the association explains, speaking of the intense pressures that technological changes are bringing to the art. “Every year, the struggling digital music economy forces talented songwriters to succumb to the financial pressure to find more lucrative jobs.”
Those pressures have been building for a while. As early as 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America began filing lawsuits against computer users who illegally shared copyrighted music files (a technical-sounding term that simply means the songs you hear on the radio by professional artists) via online file sharing networks. Many of those sites have shut down, but now newer technology, specifically the wildly popular practice of streaming music, has brought even more pressure on the financial viability of songwriting as an art. Writing last month in the Pacific Standard, journalist Jack Denton explained that it’s songwriters who are being hurt the most by streaming services like Pandora and Spotify. “While [recording] artists are capable of making money through touring and merchandising,” he explains, “songwriter income is limited to royalties received from music sales, radio plays, and streams.”
Denton told the story of a songwriter named Andre Lindal, whose song “As Long As You Love Me,” was a smash hit for pop singer Justin Bieber. In one year, users of the streaming site Pandora listened to the song a whopping 38 million times. On YouTube, the song’s video was viewed more than 34 million times. From the plays on Pandora, Lindal received $278 for the year. From the YouTube views he received just $218. (If my math is correct, each time his song was played on Pandora he received .00000732 cents.) As streaming replaces the traditional sale of albums, the established avenues of remuneration for songwriters begin to shrink. “You can’t be a songwriter without having a spare job,” he told Denton with discouragement. “It’s awesome to be working with great people. But it stinks that you’re not going to be able to get paid for what you do. You can only be a fan for so long.”
In 2014 Time magazine explained that even recording artists earned, on average, less than one cent per play, specifically somewhere between $0.006 and $0.0084. That year, pop superstar Taylor Swift famously pulled her catalog from the streaming service Spotify. “Music is art,” she said, “and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for.” Music, she summed up, should not be free.
Indeed, one troublesome aspect of the increasing ubiquity of the Internet has been how it encourages the notion that all sorts of artistic content ought to be free to consumers, including newspaper stories, professional art criticism, and even music itself. But musicians and songwriters are the heart of the music business and it is they who create the art. They are the ones who deserve to profit from it more than anyone else in the process. Streaming is popular and isn’t going to go away, but it’s worth knowing that something so enjoyed by consumers has a distinct downside for many of the artists who are creating that enjoyment.