Heading Upstream

Jazz composer Maria Schneider fights for musicians’ rights in the age of YouTube

By Roy Hubbard

Maria Schneider (B.A. ’83) has made it in the music business. She’s become one of the world’s most celebrated jazz artists, a composer and bandleader who picked up her fourth and fifth Grammys in early 2016.

Soon after moving to New York City in 1985, Schneider started gaining a strong reputation as a composer and arranger. She formed her Maria Schneider Orchestra in 1992 and has recorded nine albums with the group, the most recent, The Thompson Fields, inspired by her upbringing on the plains of southwestern Minnesota. She also collaborated with soprano Dawn Upshaw and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra on 2013’s Grammy-winning Winter Morning Walks; worked with the late David Bowie on some of his last projects; and received an honorary doctorate from the University of Minnesota in 2012.

But, Schneider warns, the industry in which she has thrived is ailing. Fundamental changes in its structure and economics are endangering the livelihood of musicians and songwriters to such an extent that an exodus of talent is already underway. Schneider is worried enough about the future of the industry that she’s become an advocate for the musicians who are making little from popular recordings and swimming in red ink. As Schneider sees it, their dual nemeses are behemoth streaming services Spotify and YouTube.

The vast majority of the content on video-sharing website YouTube is uploaded to the site by users. In the case of music, that’s usually in violation of copyright law. Neither they nor those who watch the videos typically provide monetary compensation to the artists who originally created the music. “To me, YouTube is just a big cesspool of illegally procured stuff,” Schneider says.

In response to criticisms like Schneider’s, Christophe Muller, head of YouTube International Music Partnerships, wrote in a 2016 blog post, “Today, thousands of labels and rightholders have licensing agreements with YouTube to actually leave fan videos up and earn revenue with them.”

Meanwhile, Spotify is a streaming service for music, video, and podcasts that is offered free with the option to upgrade to a subscription model. A song played by a Spotify user earns an extremely small fraction of a penny (in the thousandths), and that’s often split between many entities, including performers, songwriters, publishers, and record companies.

“A recent U.S. Copyright Office report said that 80 percent of the songwriters in Nashville have left the business since 2000,” Schneider says. “Songwriters just can’t make a living anymore.

“A lot of the stars on these streaming sites are being given huge advances, and then the pie is decreasing for everyone,” she says. “I’ve asked people: Name one classical or jazz album that’s made its budget back through streaming on Spotify and YouTube. Nobody can name one. I know a young hip-hop musician who had a song that was played 70 million times on Spotify. He never got a check for more than $60 in any pay period. Many have this glorified image of the starving musician, but you can’t both starve and live.”

So, Schneider is fighting back. She and others in New York have started MusicAnswers.org, which represents the interests of songwriters, composers, performers, and producers—“the ones who aren’t getting paid while these companies are making billions of dollars,” she says. Their goal is to educate the public and young musicians, many of whom don’t even know what they’ve lost, about what’s happening in the business. The site contains videos, articles, and calls to action.

How did the economics of music become so unfavorable to musicians? Schneider points to two key business deals as doing the most damage: Google purchasing YouTube (despite calling the video site a “rogue enabler of content theft” the year before) and the three largest music companies—Sony, Universal, and Warner—cutting deals to offer their music on Spotify in exchange for equity in the streaming service, while also making deals with YouTube. It’s a situation that’s drastically shrinking the revenue that goes to most musicians.

“In the old days, the record companies were paying for the records,” Schneider says. “And only one out of 12 records actually made its budget and was paying for itself. That’s why record companies largely took a bigger amount of the profit, because they were like banks, paying for all these losing records. Musicians now are mostly paying for their own records. We’re the bank. We’re taking on the financial risk.”

The cost of creating an album varies widely, from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands of dollars. “All of my records cost about $200,000 to make now,” Schneider said, “and we definitely can’t go above that.”

Schneider has found financial success by creating and releasing her records via the crowdfunding ArtistShare label. But those who record for Sony, Universal, or Warner, which Schneider says reap up to 80 percent of the world’s recorded music sales, are at the mercy of Spotify.

“Streaming is driving the technology,” she says, “so much so that they aren’t putting CD players in cars or computers anymore. And people aren’t even wanting downloads anymore. So everybody wants to stream, but it’s not financially feasible to pay for your record with it. What’s that going to do to music, to classical music and jazz? Who’s going to fund it? How long can that go on, throwing money at things that can’t possibly make the money back?”

Schneider says there are steps the average music fan can take to make sure musicians get fairly paid. “If you love someone’s music, find their own website and see where they steer you to buy the music,” she says. Some musicians will list several options. “Go to where they ask you to go first. A lot of times, they sell from their own site. If you can buy directly from the musician, go for it. Do it at their website or at the merchandise table at a show.”

Schneider encourages visiting MusicAnswers.org to learn more about supporting musicians. “Congress wants to rewrite copyright law and that’s huge,” she says. “We need a force of people writing to their congressional representatives, saying, ‘This is important to us.’ Then maybe we’ll have some power. We need to be like Paul Revere, galloping from house to house saying, ‘Quick, join the force. It’s now or never.’”

(Photo Courtesy of Maria Schneider)

MINNESOTA ALUMNI MAGAZINE, Winter2018

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