Dear Young and Starving Composers,
Hi! By now I’m sure you’ve heard of what I’m going to refer to as “The Discovery Debacle”. If not, here is a quick breakdown. Discovery owns the following US channels: Discovery Channel, HGTV, Food Network, TLC, Investigation Discovery, OWN, Travel Channel, Motortrend, Animal Planet, Science Channel, DIY Network, Cooking Channel, Discovery Family, American Heroes Channel, Destination America, Discovery Life, Discovery en Español, Discovery Familia and Great American Country. Starting on December 31, 2019, Discovery plans to negotiate Direct Source Licenses with composers. In addition to negotiating Direct Source Licenses with composers for future content, Discovery plans to renegotiate past contracts in order to license all music directly. This deal places all music written by composers for Discovery under a Direct Source License.
What is a Direct Source License?
According to ASCAP: “A direct license is any license agreement between an ASCAP member and a music user (for example, a radio station, TV network, website, live venue or background music service) granting the user the rights to perform publicly the member’s music. A source license is any license agreement between an ASCAP member and an entity that produces and supplies programs containing your music (for example, a TV production company), granting the right to authorize others (for example, a TV station) to perform publicly the member’s music.” “ As ASCAP cannot collect license fees for direct or source licensed performances, no royalties will be paid by ASCAP for these performances. If the direct or source license includes performances for periods for which ASCAP has already paid royalties because we were not aware that such a license had been issued, a debit will be made to your account with respect to such performances.”
TL;DR — Signing a Direct Source License means you (the composer) allow the person you sign it with to use your music and allow entities of their choosing to use your music. Sounds ok so far, right? Here’s where the problem comes in. No Performance Rights Organization/ PRO (ASCAP, BMI, SESAC) can collect royalties for you when you sign a Direct Source License. What does this mean for you? If you sign a Direct Source License you do not get royalties. If they are accidentally paid to you — you have to pay them back.
Cool, so we don’t get royalties if we sign with Discovery under their current offer. Why is that such a big deal?
Your Music Your Future, an organization founded to ensure that composers understand their legal rights, says “These backend royalties range from thousands of dollars to millions of dollars for a single composition or score.” This means that, if you sign a Direct Source License, you are agreeing to give up the potential of thousands or even millions of dollars in future income. In addition to agreeing to give up this potential future income, you are telling the entity you sign this Direct Source License with that you gave up this income willingly. This means they will expect you to sign this same deal with them in the future, as will every other entity looking to work with you who knows that you signed a Direct Source License in the past. Think of it this way. Imagine that you bake three cookies every day for a week. These are your cookies, and you do not owe them to anyone else. Your friend comes over every day and asks for all 3 cookies. As you have given them all 3 of your cookies every day for a week, they expect you to give them all 3 cookies every day in the subsequent weeks, and become offended and confused when, starting in the second week, you insist that you only give them 1 or 2 cookies every day in because you want to eat some of the cookies you have worked hard to make. Trying to insist on more rights in a contract after giving some of them away in an earlier contract with the same people works much the same way.
So, now the situation makes sense. Why is this relevant to young, starving composers? I don’t even work for Discovery.
Now that all of the established composers have told Discovery they are unwilling to comply with their demands, Discovery needs to find music somewhere else. They can go to two places: library music or other composers. Since Discovery has a taste of custom music in their shows it is likely (although not certain) that they will be searching for other composers to work with. If all of the big-name composers and mid-level composers have already told Discovery that they find their current negotiations unacceptable, and Discovery still wishes to have custom music for their shows, Discovery will be forced to turn to lesser-known composers.
Oh, awesome! That means I have a chance to work for Discovery?! This could be my big break!
Not so fast. There are three reasons this is a bad idea for you:
- As so many composers are refusing to work for Discovery under these terms, this amounts to an unofficial composer strike from Discovery. If you decide to work under these conditions, you are a scab. (For those of you who are not familiar with labor terminology — a “scab” is a common term for someone who breaks a strike.) Speaking as an Irish American, I can promise you that people are never nice to scabs. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are, or how badly you need to the job — people suck. You risk the ire of other composers (both well-established and less-known), and you may lose both friendships and working relationships with them. In addition to other composers, filmmakers of other disciplines are watching this unfold. A Director may see that you worked for Discovery, see that it was on or after December 31, 2019, and decide either not to “work with a scab” or to treat you the same way that Discovery will treat you.
- Discovery clearly does not care about their composers. If they don’t respect you enough to pay you royalties, they won’t respect you in other aspects of working for them. They could force you to crunch without adequate compensation, and they could easily replace you with younger, newer composers who know even less about what their rights should be than you do. (For those of you unfamiliar with crunch, it is essentially equivalent to overtime. You can read more about my opinions on that here.)
- Royalties are more than just the primary source of income for composers. Royalties are our retirement funds. After we have to slow down and take less gigs for our health and sanity, we need those royalties to pay for our rent, food, medical expenses, etc. As freelancers, we don’t have a savings fund that our employer pays into to help us retire. Our royalties are the closest equivalent we have.
I keep hearing about all of these “future implications”. Why does this matter when I need money now?
It would be acceptable for an entity to forgo paying us royalties if they paid us enough money upfront to cover: cost of living, taxes, and a substantial amount of money to go towards savings. Unfortunately, Discovery does not pay very much upfront. While no exact numbers have been released, several composers have stated that the current fees minus the royalty payments would make working as a composer in LA unsustainable. If you need money to pay rent, you are better off working in a restaurant or writing for music libraries.
Lastly, the future implications are dangerous because the world is watching this happen. If Discovery can get away with this, other networks are going to try it. If composers cooperate with Discovery, we risk losing royalties from more places. It has already been reported that Netflix is attempting something similar.
Now let’s go one of the more awkward topics mentioned when a group of composers talks about Discovery.
If you are an active member of Perspective, Business Skills for Composers, and a few other social media forums, you may have seen people bring up the practice of ghost-writing and how it relates to what Discovery is proposing. Established composers have been paying less-known composers flat fees without royalties to ghost-write for them for years, now. Isn’t what Discovery is doing essentially the same thing? Yes, it is. It’s just on a larger scale. Discovery is now doing to all composers what some established composers have been doing to less-known composers for years. It’s like a teacher watching a student steal lunch money from smaller kids for months before deciding to steal all the lunch money from the “bully” student.
Before you go off into the real world and make your decisions about what to do with this information, I’m going to explain why I wrote this open letter. I wrote it because I know a lot of composers at my level don’t trust big-name composers when they tell them what is best for their careers. A lot of lesser-known composers have been chewed up and spit out by the same composers who speak out against losing their rights. I know that a lot of you will do the exact opposite of what these big names are telling you to do, simply because you have followed their advice for years and it has gotten you no closer to paying off your rent and debts. My friends, I am so, so sorry that you have been treated this way. I truly am. I deeply feel for you because I know how assistants should be treated. I know the correct way to treat your interns and assistants, because I have worked for some amazing composers. I know that this is far from the norm, though, so I completely understand the mistrust of some big-name composers. This open letter is to give you the perspective of another young, starving, just-barely-moved-to-LA Composer who is saying that this is not ok. You are worth more than what Discovery is trying to tell you that you are.
All my love and respect,