The year is 2019 and songwriters are still fighting to get the respect they deserve. Behind all of your favorite top 40 hits is a team of songwriters working tirelessly to make sure the perfect lyrics and melodies are coming together to make for the best song experience possible. One such songwriter is Drew Love, one half of R&B duo THEY., who has done extensive work with The Chainsmokers, and helped to write records for Ty Dolla $ign ("Goin Thru Some Thangz"), G-Eazy (“Rewind”), and blackbear (“g2g ttyl”), among others.
Drew’s love of the pen began at birth when he was given “Langston” as a middle name, in the vein of American poet and playwright Langston Hughes. “I always liked to write poetry because I felt like it was my true calling,” Love tells me. “One day, after high school, I decided to get a microphone and pulled up beats on YouTube in my basement. I started rapping first, before I started writing songs.”
After writing a string of early songs for himself, R&B records we first covered on DJBooth, Love was flown out to LA and he never left. “Los Angeles is the best place to be in the room with artists and to get to know managers and A&R and people that can further set you up,” he explains. “That’s the key to survive out here, just to outwork everybody else.”
Despite late sessions every night, Love admits the hardest part about being a songwriter is the compensation. Explaining the math to me, by the time Love gets his cut, it’s only around 15 percent of the total song revenue, despite having put in much more than 15 percent effort.
“Think of a song as a pie,” he says. “Fifty percent goes to the producer, 50 percent goes to the writer side. Now, if it’s just me who wrote every single word on that song, I’m getting 50 percent. Most of the time, if you wrote for another artist, they’re going to come in and take 15 to 20 percent, depending on how big the artist is, regardless of it they wrote anything or not.”
While songwriters are getting more respect, per Drew Love, we are still a way away from their getting the pay and recognition that they deserve. Thankfully, there are services like Royalty Exchange that are working just as tirelessly to help songwriters know their worth and become cash flow positive. Hopefully, by sharing his experiences, Love can set us on a better path.
DJBooth’s full interview with Drew Love, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.
DJBooth: How did you know you had a knack for putting pen to paper?
Drew Love: My middle name is Langston, so I was named after Langston Hughes. My parents named me after a famous Harlem Renaissance poet, so because of that, as a kid, I always liked to write poetry because I felt like it was my true calling. I always liked to write poetry as a kid and I liked to sing a lot, much to the displeasure of my brother. I was always singing in the shower and he was telling me to be quiet, but it gave me the desire to do it even more. One day, after high school, I decided to get a microphone and pulled up beats on YouTube in my basement. I started rapping first, before I started writing songs.
I wrote my first R&B song for myself, and I put it out online, and I got flown out here [to LA]. Off the strength of the first or second song I put out, which I believe DJBooth covered, actually. I’m pretty sure that’s how the people that found me, found me. They flew me out here to give me a chance to figure myself out in LA and I never came back. I started getting myself in every session I could get into. At the time, my manager was really good friends with Dante [the other half of THEY.]. We started just writing and then THEY. was born.
THEY. gave me a platform to expand my songwriting career. I’ve been able to use it as a supplementary source of income, but it’s also, for me, a way to unleash different things that I can’t in other ways—things I can’t express in a conversation, or I can’t get off my chest. I’m able to really relate to a lot of different people’s situations in my music. Whether it pop, hip-hop, rock. I try to put all my trials and tribulations into the music.
What’s one thing you wish music fans understood about songwriters?
There’s really an art to it. I think, nowadays, with the type of music that is coming to the forefront, especially with the surge of hip-hop and urban music, it’s easy to see people make songs really quickly. That’s not to say that they’re not great songs, but somebody [making] more classic R&B and pop tunes? There’s people sitting in that studio, toiling away, trying to find the perfect lyric, the perfect melody, the perfect structure for you to listen to. There’s songs that’ll be No. 1 hits that took years to make. I know there’s songs that are finally coming out now that I wrote two-and-a-half years ago.
There’s a long process, sometimes, that goes into writing a song and it finally coming out. It bounces between different people, and people switch it up and change things. It’ll always be interesting for a fan to really see the creation of a song. It’s a long, drawn-out process, sometimes.
Is that the hardest part of being a writer, the wait?
Sometimes, because songwriters don’t really get paid adequately. That’s been a hot button issue, but we’re still waiting for the streaming services to catch up with the times in terms of our compensation. You have to wait months and months after a record comes out before you even see any of the royalties. If you’re signed to a pub deal, your process is even longer. You have to work even harder and churn out even more songs, and you have to wait before you see any benefit from the songs that you wrote. Especially if the songs don’t even do that well. If you’re not getting a top 40 hit, you gotta stack those songs. Songwriters get the short end of the stick a lot.
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So readers understand, how exactly do songwriters get paid? When someone presses play, what happens?
It’s a complicated process. A song comes out, a fan presses play, now, think of a song as a pie. Fifty percent goes to the producer, 50 percent goes to the writer side. Now, if it’s just me who wrote every single word on that song, I’m getting 50 percent. Most of the time, if you wrote for another artist, they’re going to come in and take 15 to 20 percent, depending on how big the artist is, regardless of it they wrote anything or not. That leaves me with, like, 30, and then if I co-wrote it with anybody, I gotta split that. I am below 15 percent by the time the record is done and I wrote the whole thing.
What is one thing you would change so that songwriters are more fairly compensated? Especially in the context of streaming.
As of now, producers get an upfront fee when they make a beat. Obviously, that’s an advance against performance and mechanical royalties, and that’s why they get the upfront fee, but I would like to see songwriters get some upfront fee. I would like to see songwriters be able to get more per song. I would like to see a huge adjustment in the royalty rates. There was a bill that was about to get passed, that was gonna drastically improve our compensation and how much we got paid, especially off of streaming, and it got blocked and it got vetoed.
At the end of the day, it might be your favorite song, but that melody had to come from somebody and those words had to come from somebody. Songwriters really move the world. Production is important, but the songwriting is just as important if not more important because if the beat is tight but the melody is garbage and the lyrics are garbage, nobody’s gonna like the song. I would like to see us get appreciated a little bit more.
How can songwriters get the respect they deserve in the industry?
I wish I could give you the answer to that! I think we’re making strides, bringing awareness to the fact that songwriters are a big part of the game and don’t necessarily always get that deserved attention. For me, I don’t necessarily want the spotlight, I just want to get my money sooner, I would like to get my money faster. And I would like to get more money for all the work I put in. These are sessions from seven o’clock to one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning. You do that almost every day. That’s what I’ve been on almost every single day. Just for some of [the songs] to possibly come out. Then when they do come out, I gotta wait damn near a year before I see anything from it.
So, something’s gotta change, because it’s really hard to sustain a lifestyle living in Los Angeles, a really expensive place to live. Luckily, I’m an artist so I can tour and do other things to fill my pockets, but a lot of songwriters are struggling. They come out to LA and they can’t stay for very long because it’s too expensive and they don’t get paid often enough.
You bring up an interesting point. You have to live in an expensive city to follow your dream.
It’s really, really expensive! Even if you have a roommate, you’re looking at over $2,000 every single month for a one-bedroom… Honestly, to get your foot in the game, what you have to do is come out here. One good thing about being a songwriter is if you start catching a groove or are in the right circle, you can work from anywhere and send your songs in. [That approach] is obviously less efficient because if an artist loves your song and wants you to come to the studio, you can’t necessarily do that unless you live in Los Angeles. Los Angeles is the best place to be in the room with artists and to get to know managers and A&R and people that can further set you up. That’s the key to survive out here, just to outwork everybody else. The songwriters writing more songs, the better chance they have of them landing somewhere. Working harder and smarter.
Where does your work ethic come from?
I don’t have a choice! Songwriting and music is my entire existence, it’s all I’m really working towards. As you grow, you learn to have other forms of income on the side. But aside from that, music is my job. I tour three months out of the year, and I’m in sessions every single day. I take time on the weekends and give myself some re-calibration time, but for the most part, music is all I have. If I stop working, songs are not coming out, I’m not making my money, I fall by the wayside, I’m not the hot commodity anymore. My name falls through the cracks, my value as a songwriter drops, and I’m getting less work, means less money, and I’d probably have to move out of LA. That’s where that work ethic came from because if I didn’t do that, I’d have to go live with my mom or something. I’m not trying to do that [laughs].
Ending on a positive note, what’s your favorite part of being a songwriter?
Being able to tell a whole story that people can relate to through music. Whether it be a break-up or love, money struggles, family struggles, anything, you can put anything into a song. You can make somebody’s favorite song just because you wanted to write about your ideas and write about your life. The most rewarding part of being a songwriter is being able to touch other people’s lives and inspire other people just from your words.
Royalty Exchange is sponsoring this series of interviews with the people behind the music you love. They build tools, like the Know Your Worth tool, and offer services to help producers, songwriters, and artists build a bigger future.