AP had an interesting article the other day on the declining number of professional country songwriters in Nashville. The article is mostly a lament about the loss of a culturally significant and important profession, but it also speculates on reasons for the decline, including corporate mergers, media consolidation, and music piracy:
Herbison puts much of the blame on radio consolidation, which he says has made it tough to get airplay and the royalties that come with it. Nine years ago, he said, there were 5,400 country music stations, compared with 1,700 today. The stations' music playlists have also been shrinking to make room for more commercials and talk shows, he said.
"Three people program 85 percent of all country stations in America," Herbison said. "They sit in office towers and don't know George Jones from George Clooney."
Songwriter royalties from CD sales are about 8.5 cents per song; that's usually split between the writer and the publisher. Often, the songwriters' cut is even less because he has to share it with a co-writer.
The big money for most successful songwriters is from performance royalties, which are paid when a song is played on the radio.
"The biggest lick a writer can make is having a single that does good on radio," said Fred Knobloch, who has written songs for Faith Hill, George Strait, Ray Charles and Trisha Yearwood. "You want singles, and you want them bad."
But there are fewer big record labels to release and promote those singles. A series of mergers has left only five major music companies: Universal, Warner Bros. and EMI, plus Sony and BMG, which are planning to merge.
Many in the industry - writers, producers, musicians, publicists - have lost their jobs in the shuffle.
"I get at least a call a week, sometimes two, from people who had jobs in this business a year ago that are looking for work," Knobloch said.
As for music piracy, or downloading music for free from the Internet, everyone believes it's a problem, but not the worst one. Ultimately, many predict, the technology will help songwriters and performers more than hurt them. The challenge now, they say, is for the record companies to catch up to changing technology and consumer demand.