Two Is the Loneliest Number: Why are songwriters punished for 1909?

If you don’t know the history, you may think that songwriters are paid so little because somehow they don’t deserve more. That’s not true. The reason that songwriters are paid so little is that every U.S. mechanical royalty rate we have and have had since 1909 somehow refers back to the 2¢ rate set by Congress in 1909 that did not change until 1978. (And due to America’s long commercial shadow, that base-2¢ valuation is visited on the rest of the world.)

When Congress decided to increase the 2¢ rate in the 1976 revision of the Copyright Act, they did not start over again, they started increasing a rate that had already been eaten away by inflation for 68 years. As Jennine Nwoko and Jacqueline Charlesworth observed in an amicus brief on behalf of Songwriters of North America and Music Artists Coalition, “…the original 2-cent rate established by Congress…has risen to only 9.1 cents, which is well below the 50-plus cent rate that would apply today if adjusted for inflation.” 

Of course, I’d suggest that continuing to think of even an inflation-adjusted historical rate elevates the 2¢ rate to being a candidate for status as a transcendental number like π or the e constant. Think about it–if Nwoko and Charlesworth are correct that the inflation adjusted benchmark rate in 1977 should have been over 50¢ instead of 2¢, are they not actually saying that the real 1977 statutory rate adjusted for inflation is -48¢, a negative royalty? Which means that even after 29 years of glacial statutory increases from 2¢ to 9.1¢ (not 44 years because the rates were frozen in 2006), songwriters are still receiving a negative real royalty rate.

That’s right–songwriters are paid less than zero. And since all the statutory rates refer back to the 2¢ rate one way or another, the number 2 in this context has taken on transcendental meaning kind of like π. Consider that π may be an infinite number because we measure it in the base-10 system. If π were actually a building block of a different computational system like 10 is to base-10, maybe it would not be infinite. Maybe we’re just measuring it with the wrong tool because the species homo sapiens happens to have ten fingers.

So when we say things like the statutory rate should have been 50¢ in 1977, maybe we’re just looking at it wrong. Maybe the byzantine social structure built up around a completely misguided gaslit royalty numbering system just shrouds it in a special language that has no connection to the actual value of a song. If you abandoned the statutory rate system, we certainly wouldn’t say that the value of a song is so low that it’s negative, right? Particularly not given the extraordinary growth in the value of music since 1909 or even 2009.

But that is essentially what we say when we even accept the premise that all conversations about mechanical royalties have to start in this base-2¢ world that never did and still doesn’t connect to reality.

It’s a very desolate pit to crawl out of. It’s no wonder that many songwriters feel unheard and lonely.