switched on pop

The Songwriters Who Refuse to Be Bullied Out of Publishing Profits Any Longer

Illustration: Iris Gottlieb

In 1974, country-music singer and songwriter Dolly Parton got wind that Elvis Presley wanted to record her new song, “I Will Always Love You.“ According to Parton, the deal fell through when Presley’s manager demanded 50 percent of the publishing revenue. Parton refused, released the song herself, and years later arranged a more equitable deal with Whitney Houston, who of course made it a massive hit.

It’s a juicy bit of industry history that speaks more to our current reality than you might think. What Elvis’s management did — demand a cut of the publishing revenue on top of the money he’d make from album sales and live shows — is not an anomaly.

Emily Warren knows this all too well. Emily is a songwriter and performer in Los Angeles. You’ve heard her on the show before, in part because she’s written some huge hits, including Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” and the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down.”

What happened to Dolly in ’74 has happened often to Emily. She says that countless times, after an artist decides to record a song of hers that Warren wrote independently, she’ll get an email from the artist’s management team asking for a cut of her publishing revenue. The emails are polite, but that masks an implied arrangement: Give us a cut of the publishing, or we won’t put out the song.

So Emily started talking to other established songwriters she knows, contemporaries such as Tayla Parx, Ross Golan, Justin Tranter, and Savan Kotecha, and learned that they’ve all been asked to give up publishing. Together they resolved to do something about the practice. That “something” ended up being the creation of an organization called the Pact, a group of music professionals who refuse to give publishing away for songs where artists do not contribute. Their goal is to make the music business more equitable for the creative laborers.

In the latest episode of Switched On Pop, co-host Charlie Harding sat down with Warren to discuss what it’s been like getting the Pact off the ground. You can listen here and read an excerpt below.

Charlie Harding: What’s pop music’s worst kept secret?
Emily Warren: The secret is that most artists don’t write all their songs. Very few artists are really in their bedroom, playing piano, and writing the song by themselves. That’s uncommon. They do co-write a lot of their songs, but almost every artist takes outside songs. And it’s kind of like no one wants you to know that.

You were recently contacted by a significant artist manager who asked you to give up publishing on a song that the artist didn’t write on. Did you?
I didn’t give any publishing up. No. I’ve been called difficult so many times for standing up for myself. And that was another one of those situations where everyone was like, come on, just like, agree to this. Like, let’s just keep this moving. I, as a person, can’t agree to that.

It’s like an actor in a movie being like, I want a piece of the screenwriter share. It’s like, why? You’re the actor. You’re being compensated as the actor. It would be so crazy if an actor did that. And it’s been going on for so long. It’s just a function of the industry that we’ve all accepted. And it was just time to shed a light on it. So, we started drafting a letter that says this body of songwriters will not give publishing to an artist who didn’t write a song without a meaningful exchange.

How have songwriters responded to the Pact? 
Immediately there was a community. Immediately we were talking about this thing and everyone was sharing stories. There were a couple of weeks where everyone was hitting me up to say something that was happening, and it has been awesome.

We’ve been clear in the messaging for songwriters, and we’ll continue to be. So we want to see those correspondences, and not because I’m trying to come for anyone, but you have us now. If you’re a baby songwriter, you have all these big songwriters and a thousand other people who signed the letter and 13,000 people on Instagram who have your back.

So even if you never send it to us, go into the conversation knowing that it’s not just your ass on the line. All of us agree with you, and we’re here for you.
And as this group grows, I really hope that, above all else, every song writer no longer feels like it’s just them on an island and they have a community and they have people that they can like voice some of this to and share some of this with that have their back.

One of the obvious power dynamics is you don’t want to point fingers and name names. Can you break down why you and other artists don’t want to say exactly where this has happened? 
One of the reasons is that in a lot of cases, this is coming from the artist’s managers. So to point the finger at the artist — who has some blame, just because they’re probably like, I don’t know what’s going on — is an issue in and of itself. They’re not the ones necessarily going out and demanding this. So that was one reason.

The second reason is we were really excited about this being an educational moment and positive in the sense that everyone has done this. Everyone has asked for publishing. Everyone has given publishing. Every single person that has signed it is a hypocrite in some regard. But here’s the situation: We’re not going to agree to this anymore. Going forward, if you bully someone into publishing, we’re going to name names. So you have a chance to make this right.

I think by staying positive, we’ve had a lot of power in terms of the conversations that have started. That being said, if the current practices continue, it’s going to be a totally different vibe. Which we all know. This has been an educational moment. I’m not going to do this moving forward.

Have you heard from the artist manager who sent you that email?
No. It’s hard, right? There have been moments where I’ve thought, Oh, maybe I should have left things the way they were and not put myself out there. But I know that that’s not right. Being called difficult is something that I’m down with now.

I’m in a fortunate position where I feel like they can threaten to take the song away, and I’ll still be okay. But very few people are in that position. So how do we all as a community bring awareness to this so that next time someone tries to send an email like that, it’s going to look crazy and people will have spoken about it and voiced it.

The Songwriters Who Won’t Be Bullied Out of Profits Anymore