Why don’t the BRITs value songwriters

Guest post by the President of the European Composer & Songwriter Alliance (ECSA).

Why don’t the BRITs value songwriters

As I was watching the BRIT Awards from the rafters, last year, I got a text from a fellow songwriter and producer, whose song was nominated for Song of the Year. He was at his local pub, trying to drown his despair in beer. Despite having co-written one of the nominated songs and worked on several of the others, he had not been invited to the awards. Nowhere on the screens, nor in the press releases leading up to the awards – or even on the BRITs website – was his name mentioned. “I think I’m going to just pack it in,” he texted. “I’m just tired of being treated like I don’t exist, undervalued and underpaid.”

I scanned the room and realised that almost no non-performing songwriter had indeed been invited, and the only people mentioned on the list of Song of the Year nominees were the artists. Even the Grammy Awards, which only introduced an award for Songwriter of the Year last year, has always credited the songwriters of the Song of the Year. (This is only the third year the BRITs give an award for Songwriter of the Year and, so far, only Kid Harpoon was not also the artist). It’s the SONG of the year, not the Recording of the Year, so why do the BRITs insist on only crediting the performer?

Ponder this: without great songs, all you’d have is a bunch of musicians doing an improvisational jam on stage for two hours this Saturday night on primetime TV. The average number of writers on a top 40 song keeps growing. It’s currently around five. The streaming economy is a song economy. It’s songs that go viral on TikTok and are searched for on Shazam, and record labels are constantly searching for that song that will break their artist. Quincy Jones once told me: “It’s all about the song. You can have an average singer sing a great song – and it’ll be a hit. But you can’t have a hit with a great singer singing an average song.”

Yet those creating those songs are struggling – both financially and mentally. Though songwriters may spend weeks and months working with and developing the sound of an artist, they only get paid if the song is released – and, even then, they only get to share 15% of the record’s overall streaming revenue between them. There is no set streaming rate, but we’ve calculated that a million streams will earn you about £500 on Spotify, if you wrote 100% of the song and own your publishing. If divided according to the above average top 40 number of writers, a million streams would earn a writer less than £100, once the publisher takes their cut. Going to work as a songwriter has always been a bit of a lottery. The difference today is that your lottery ticket each day costs £30-£40 just in expenses (not counting the actual work and studio hire), but unless you hit the jackpot – a playlisted radio single – you won’t earn enough from that song to even cover those expenses. If you have to hire a babysitter, your budget is completely blown. 

Songwriters are instructed to keep churning out songs, booking sessions with different artists every day and attending songwriting camps for specific artists, hoping that their song is selected out of the dozens of songs written. As one writer put it to me: “I feel like a milking cow.”

Nobody becomes a songwriter to be rich or famous. We do it for the love of music. But we want to be able to survive on our music, especially if our songs are listened to by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people. And we want to be credited when we’ve written something that has moved all those people – and certainly if that song wins an award.

It takes “a village” to make a record. If compassion or respect for songwriters doesn’t sway the labels, perhaps an economic argument can. With the demise of physical records, we also lost the liner notes in the sleeves. If music fans are under the impression that a record is solely made by the artist, then it’s easier to fall for the argument that music should be free and artists can make money from merch and touring.

I often hear people in the music industry claiming that the BRITs is largely a promotional vehicle for major labels, though it can be argued that the most nominated artist this year only achieved this feat by leaving her major label. But the prevalence of reality show stars, both at the coveted floor tables and on stage, presenting awards (a fact that didn’t pass my non-invited songwriter friend by unnoticed), makes it look more like a TV entertainment show than a celebration of music.

I implore the BRITs to at least credit the songwriters for the song category. Meanwhile, to the artists that do win, please give a shout-out to the songwriters and producers who helped make your records, which in turn built your careers. It would make a huge difference to those writers to have their hard work acknowledged in public – even if they’re not invited to the party.

Helienne Lindvall (@Helienne) is a songwriter, former Guardian columnist, and is the President of the European Composer & Songwriter Alliance (ECSA), as well as the co-founder of the #PaySongwriters campaign.

DiS Ponders

Why is film so much better at telling the story about the purpose of cinema and of "the village" around music? Even the list of awards feel like they recognise the team effort it takes to create a great movie, rather than just the performers. Makes us wonder if music media also lets down fans in focussing on the performers far more than the rest of the ecosystem, which would also help understand the value of music. Just consider how cookery shows and recipe books educate on the history and deepen our appreciation of far more than the final dish.

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Anyway, here's that Samantha Morton speech from the BAFTAs in case you missed it or wanna watch it again