Will Pandora's New CEO Do The Right Thing And Stop Ripping Off Songwriters?


(Editor’s note: One of AlterNet’s priorities is covering efforts to boost wages for Americans in low-wage jobs at profitable corporations. In the music world, the largest Internet broadcaster, Pandora, has been fighting songwriter associations over paying artists after they air their work. One pop musician told Yahoo! News that he made more money from selling a few T-shirts than Pandora paid after playing his song a million times. 

Pandora has a new CEO and songwriters are hoping that he will make small adjustments in the royalty formula that could mean a big difference in livelihoods. AlterNet’s Steven Rosenfeld has produced audio profiles of new recordings for one songwriter group, ASCAP, since 1999. He spoke to Paul Williams, ASCAP’s president and author of many 1970s hits, about Pandora and ASCAP’s online campaign to get Pandora to pay fairly.)

Steven Rosenfeld: You’re a songwriter and president of what’s essentially a co-op whose members are songwriters and their publishing businesses. Some are famous. Most are not. Everyone struggles to get paid fairly in an era where many people think music should be free. Who is Pandora? And what are they doing that’s unfair and hurting songwriters?

Paul Williams: Well, first of all, Pandora is a technology that we love and a business that we want to see succeed. Pandora has 70 million people listening to our music, listening to the best music of our world, and we want them to see them become part of the landscape that lasts forever. We love technology. We have a slight problem with Pandora because while Pandora manages to gather a great deal of applause for the music they play and the occasional fan mail, the fact is our songwriters cannot feed their families with applause, bravos and fan mail. To put food on the table, to put gas in the car, to buy baby food, we have to be paid fairly for our work. And 8 cents for 1,000 streams is not fair.   

SR:  Let’s step back and talk about business models. For creative people there’s the copyright system, which is a really enlightened idea and way to pay for their work. But today, lots of new businesses base their profits on cutting costs and paying law wages. Why can’t Pandora pay more?

PW: The fact is their business model has to change. The digital platform is something I look at today and I see vast improvements in the way the system works, everyone from Apple to Spotify. I don’t think there’s a major supplier of music in the world that ASCAP is not involved with and we want to see succeed. But there’s only one organization that is spending millions of dollars trying to pay songwriters less while they talk about being the friend of the songwriter. And that’s Pandora. Their walk is very different from their talk. I am 23 years sober. And one of the elements of my life is what you present to the world is who you really are. What we are seeing is a successful Wall Street-traded company that’s bending over backwards to pay songwriters less by litigating in court to reduce what they pay.     

SR: Pandora has 70 percent of the online music streaming business. How do you send a message that their business models should be progressive, not exploitive?

PW: We say to their new CEO that they have an amazing opportunity to do the right thing. Look clearly at your own business model and whether it is a matter of adjusting the amount of advertising you allow, or whether it’s a matter of changing elements of your subscription, just do the right thing and pay songwriters and composers fairly. After all, without the work that we do, Pandora would not even exist.

In the digital world, there are some great success stories and there’s a bright, bright future for technology. We love the technology. We don’t want to do anything to put anyone out of business. We want the people are enjoying the music not to pay more for it. But those businesses like Pandora who are streaming our music around the clock—more music, more often, played on more amazing devices than ever in the history of recorded music—should pay fairly for it. We believe that songwriters and composers should be able to thrive along with the businesses that depend on our music.     

SR: What can people who care about music and treating artists fairly do to help?

PW: People can step to the plate and display some advocacy for songwriters. They can sign our online petition. Beyond that, I hope that when Pandora looks at their business model and the success of some of the other streaming services, I hope that they will see that the way to proceed is paying fairly. I think a modest adjustment for Pandora could make a huge difference in the world of songwriters.

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