Time to get the picture on screen composers’ royalties

Published 07/7/2021

By Amin Bhatia

My SOCAN quarterly statement, August 1994: Okay, wow. What was normally a couple of grand at best was in the tens of thousands. What? Was this an error? Nope.

Nearly 25 years later…

My SOCAN quarterly statement, August 2017: Okay, wow. What was normally tens of thousands was now a couple of grand at best. What? Was this an error? Nope.

I remember questioning my career choice of writing music for film and TV: some projects are okay, but others are awful; the business is tough on our loved ones; the hours are insane.

And then I got that first cheque in August 1994. That animated TV episode, just starting to do well, airing on CBS, would get me around $400. Now, on Netflix, it gets $4.

Quite simply, a large part of my catalogue has moved from broadcast to streaming. Streaming pays cents to the dollar. After years of investing in so many projects and growing my business, I’m now in trouble. Stop everything. Cut back on suppliers, reduce my assistant’s hours. Talk to my wife. We’re gonna be downsizing.

This is the new reality that composers who write underscore for film and TV are facing. Never mind COVID (did I really just write that?), it’s streaming that has been far more devastating. The up-front dollars we get paid at the beginning of the project barely cover the work involved in creating the music in the first place. It’s why there are residuals. If one invests their time and talent in a project, and that project becomes successful, the composer shares fairly in the success because music played a role every bit as important as a cast member. But now we’re all getting minuscule amounts compared to a couple of years ago.

And that’s me, a successful composer with clients and a catalogue. For someone at the start of their career, the whole game has just been called off.

“Never mind COVID, it’s streaming that has been far more devastating”

Broadcasters follow rules set by the CRTC to share a portion of advertising revenues. SOCAN then distributes these revenues based on performances, via registered cue sheets, to both the composer and the publisher. Each side receives an equal amount, with the writer’s share and publisher’s share split 50/50. This is the broadcast model. This is the way.

While SOCAN has licensed the streaming companies (Streaming Videos On Demand, or SVODs), the dollars paid per performance are much lower, and no Canadian content rules apply – yet. Production companies increasingly demand full ownership of our copyrights as a condition of engagement. As a result, composers are being shut out of the other revenue streams that used to come our way: reproduction royalties in Quebec and in Europe, and of course, the publishing revenue we used to enjoy. Not to mention future revenue streams.

We’re slowly making progress on this issue, thanks to SOCAN, the Screen Composers Guild of Canada (SCGC), and La Société professionnelle des auteurs et des compositeurs du Québec (SPACQ), as well as our many sister organizations around the world. Europe and Australia have made great progress both in music and in news content, another area of erosion where the creators are no longer able to make a living from their work because of streaming and social media.

Some of the work that these organizations are pursuing include:

  • mandating CanCon quotas on SVODs, and the promotion and discoverability of it;
  • the collection of streaming reproduction rights royalties from SVODs;
  • copyright retention, and participation in publisher’s share of performing rights and reproduction rights, for composers; and
  • incentivizing the use of Canadian screen composers in foreign productions which shoot in Canada.

So, what can screen composers do in the meantime? Refuse buyouts. Educate clients. They’re not evil; they just don’t know. For composers, insist on proper allocation of the writer’s share. Retain copyright in your work whenever possible. And if a client insists on taking ownership of your work as a condition of engagement, insist on retaining a portion of the publishing rights and revenue. These rights are the composer’s, after all. And if this is overwhelming, then get a lawyer. They have one, you may need one too. No one should be able to demand that you give up ownership of your property if you want to keep it. French Canada has much of this already worked out, so English Canada needs to catch up.

If this sounds alarmist, I’m sorry… but I’m also not sorry. This is serious. If we don’t solve streaming residuals soon, it’s game over for writing original music in film and TV.

About Amin Bhatia

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About Amin Bhatia

Emmy-nominated Amin Bhatia has composed for film, television, and album projects, for more than 35 years. His Interstellar Suite and Virtuality albums showcase a neo-classical style and wide dynamic range. Of note is “Bolero Electronica,” Ravel's masterpiece, performed on 75 years’ worth of synthesizers, in chronological order. TV scores include Anne with an E, Flashpoint, The Handmaid’s Tale, Detention Adventure, and Let’s Go Luna, many of which were co-written by his friend and colleague Ari Posner. Film credits include Iron Eagle II and John Woo's Once a Thief, as well as orchestral scores for IMAX features by award-winning director David Lickley. Having been mentored by such luminaries as Steve Porcaro, Oscar Peterson, and David Greene, Amin is now giving back with workshops at the Canadian Film Centre and Humber College. He is the first Canadian on the Board of Advisors for the Bob Moog Foundation.

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