Inside the Extremely Unfunny War Between Comedians and Spotify

Eddie Pepitone Photo: 1091 Pictures/YouTube

Imagine you’ve got a side hustle working for a massive corporation from which you get an income that’s not great, but it’s at least consistent. Then you find out you’re actually supposed to be making more — you’re also owed some back pay for the work you’ve done — so you go to the company and say, “Hey, um, there’s an issue with what you owe me. We need to talk about this.” The company then says, “Look, we don’t owe you that money. And now we’re not going to pay you at all until this gets figured out.”

That’s essentially what happened to a few hundred comedians who had their albums taken down by Spotify the night before Thanksgiving, according to Spoken Giants, a publishing-rights company that represents the likes of Mike Birbiglia, Tiffany Haddish, Lewis Black, Jeff Foxworthy, the Bob Hope and Lucille Ball estates, and many other comics you know and love.

The dispute between Spoken Giants and Spotify dates back a few months, when the former company approached all the streaming services, as well as SiriusXM and terrestrial-radio outlets, to point out that comedians deserve royalties on their written work, not just the audio of their performances. Spoken Giants — which represents people who perform spoken-word entertainment, including podcasters and poets — is asking that its clients be compensated in the same method as the music world.

In that scenario, royalties are paid separately to the writers of works as well as those who performed the master sound recording of them. In many cases, the performer is also the writer, but there are also the instances in which a song is performed by someone who didn’t write it, wherein both parties are compensated at different rates. In the comedy world, thus far, only the performance side — the streaming tracks — have been given royalties. Spoken Giants and another company, Word Collections, are aiming to change that and recoup the lost money.

“Taylor Swift writes her own music; she performs her own music. Those are two different rates, and every platform pays on those two different rates,” Spoken Giants’ CEO, Jim King, tells Vulture. “We have purposely focused on modeling ourselves after the music industry because this is very similar, almost the same as the music industry.”

King is a former executive at BMI, the largest performing-rights organization in the music world followed by ASCAP, and he joined forces with Ryan Bitzer and Damion Greiman of comedy label 800 Pound Gorilla Records to head up Spoken Giants in 2019. “We formed what was completely absent in the industry, which was the recognition and protection and then monetization of the underlying literary works for spoken word,” King says, noting that Word Collections followed a year later.

After consulting with copyright lawyers and experts, as well as the U.S. Copyright Office, to bolster their case that writers of the spoken word deserve these royalties, they approached all the streamers and radio companies in the second quarter of this year. (It should also be noted that streamers such as Apple Music and Pandora have not removed any comedy content related to these negotiations.) Though he’s bound by NDAs not to reveal the specifics of the requested terms, King says they’re not asking for massive sums; rather, they want to keep the process growing incrementally until it’s resolved.

“We are offering to reach initial short-term deals — whatever it takes to get us started,” he says. “We do know, though, that this is precedent-setting because spoken word has not been represented in this way — even though it is completely called out in copyright law and in legal interpretation — and modeling it after music should lead us to the same conclusion that the music industry has come to.”

Spotify, though, disagreed and pulled down hundreds of comedy albums from those represented by both Spoken Giants and Word Collections on Thanksgiving Eve with no advance warning. (Spotify did not return a request for clarification on how many albums and tracks were ultimately removed.)

In response to social-media outcry from comics and fans, the streaming giant released the following statement about the issue: “Spotify has paid significant amounts of money for the content in question, and would love to continue to do so. However, given that Spoken Giants is disputing what rights various licensors have, it’s imperative that the labels that distribute this content, Spotify and Spoken Giants come together to resolve this issue to ensure this content remains available to fans around the globe.”

The streamer’s content-protection team elaborated a bit on the situation in an email sent to comedians, which was obtained by journalist Sean L. McCarthy on November 30. “While we are taking this action out of abundance of caution given continued uncertainty regarding the licensing status of these works,” the email reads, “our discussions with Spoken Giants continue and we hope the issue can be resolved soon.”

King describes Spotify’s public statement as “interesting,” much in the same way someone would criticize an outfit you’re wearing without telling you to go home and change. “Labels in the music industry, as well as in any entertainment industry, only control rights to a license for the master recordings,” he points out. The statement also doesn’t address the decision to pull the albums. “We said, ‘No, we don’t want anything from our members taken down. Their livelihood is critical to them, and what we would like to do is just meet and talk and negotiate.’ Well, that didn’t happen and then Thanksgiving happened.”

The reactions from comics have ranged from befuddled to irate. Roy Wood Jr. summed up the conflict in a series of tweets on December 1; one read, “COMEDIANS: Aye, fam can we get a couple of them dollas y’all owe us? SPOTIFY: WELL FCK IT DEN! CANT NOBODY CHUCKLE! HOW BOUT DAT?” Another was a clip from The 40-Year-Old Virgin that was edited to include subtitles that tie it to this conflict.

Kyle Kinane, meanwhile, released a screenshot of all his streaming earnings on December 2, saying they average $2,000 a month. “If you think I’m even a remotely famous comic, think about the folks that are grinding it out with just live shows and streaming income to lean on,” he wrote in a follow-up post.

What stings for the affected comedians even more is that before the launch of Spoken Giants and Word Collections, almost none of them knew they were owed royalties for writing their works. Many probably still don’t know that a written joke, not an ad-lib or ad hoc bit, can be copyrighted; as King notes, Bob Hope jokes, among others, are copyrighted in the Library of Congress. “When a joke is written down and protected and filed with a registered copyright, it is clearly protected,” he says. “All albums that are produced are copyright-protected on the sound-recording side, and those jokes that are created are captured and protected as well.”

Eddie Pepitone is among the many comedians who weren’t aware their craft wasn’t being properly compensated. “Like a lot of creative artists, stupidly, I’m not great at business,” he tells Vulture. “I’m like, Oh, I’m getting royalties for my stand-up. I thought that that meant I was getting paid for my written word. Then I come to find out we’re not.”

He adds that streaming is “a decent supplemental income” that particularly helped in the pre-vaccine COVID era. Predictably, he’s pissed at Spotify and its “chutzpah” in removing the albums. “For them to then pull down our work, it’s so nasty. It’s so corporate. It’s so ‘Fuck you,’” he says. “I mean, is there a bigger ‘Fuck you’ than ‘But here is your holiday gift from Spotify’? Also, who do they get to work on Thanksgiving Eve to take all this stuff down? Jesus, that’s not a great job either.”

For now, the situation remains open-ended. Interestingly, Spotify put some albums back on the service since the news of the takedown surfaced, but the reasons why aren’t clear. For instance, John Mulaney’s 2009 debut album, The Top Part, and his most recent album, the Sack Lunch Bunch soundtrack (released by the label Drag City), are available to stream, but New in Town (from Comedy Central Records) and his two other LPs, both released by Drag City, are not.

All that’s clear now is that there is more bargaining to come between Spotify and the publishing side. “We knew from day one that these agreements were going to take time to reach, and we’re, in essence, in the process that we anticipated,” King says. “This Spotify approach to that process, though, has thrown us into a situation of now confronting a more aggressive approach to negotiations than we feel is pertinent or appropriate. We believe only in building an environment of good faith and an environment of negotiation to reach what is only appropriate for everyone involved, including Spotify.”

Inside the Unfunny War Between Comedians and Spotify