A group backed by 6,800 composers launched a social media campaign this week against a plan by Discovery Networks that composers say would cut their income by up to 90% percent. The cable network owner wants to eliminate the vast majority of royalties paid to the people who create music for shows like “Deadliest Catch” by instituting a pay policy that goes against longstanding industry practice, according to the group.
Discovery, which airs some 8,000 hours of original programming annually on Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, HGTV, Food Network, and other channels across the globe, has traditionally followed a century-old model where composers are paid an initial work-for-hire fee to compose original music and can collect royalties after shows air through performance-rights societies ASCAP, BMI and SESAC.
Okay @Discovery let’s break this down for everyone…
As of December 31st, Discovery will no longer commission original music that allows writers to collect their U.S. performance royalties through the PRO of their choice.
— Michael Giacchino (@m_giacchino) December 15, 2019
US royalty payments typically make up a majority of a TV composer’s income. Your Music Your Future, organizer of the campaign against Discovery’s plan, offers this example of income for a successful composer working in TV over a 10-year period: $500,000 from initial fees, $1.2 million from US royalties, and $280,000 from foreign royalties.
Beginning December 31, Discovery is moving to direct source licenses, which would mean composers would no longer collect US royalties for all future and past work — they would only collect upfront fees and foreign royalties. If they don’t take the deal, Discovery plans to strip the composers’ music out of existing shows, according to Your Music Your Future.
It’s unclear how final Discovery’s plans are. A source close to Discovery said there are ongoing conversations about the matter between the company and the music industry.
The plan is seemingly one meant to cut costs at Discovery. Representatives earlier this year rejected reports that the company was readying itself for sale in a media industry that’s increasingly consolidating.
Variety reported that estimates suggest cutting out domestic royalty payments would save about $25 million — less than 1% of Discovery’s third-quarter 2019 revenue of nearly $2.68 billion.
Composers say the effects of the cost-cutting plan could be dire for an entire segment of the entertainment industry.
“When one media company does something and seems to be successful at it, those things seem to travel. It’s an urgent situation,” said Your Music Your Future co-founder Joel Beckerman (“Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations”). “It’s a grave situation.”
Unlike other Hollywood crafts, composers do not have a union. Many of them rely on royalty payments for both regular income and retirement, composers say.
In a Twitter thread retweeted by 2,100 people, composer Michael Giacchino (“Up”) likened Discovery’s plan to that of a gig economy company such as Uber, where non-employee workers are offered paltry per-job fees with no benefits.
“This 90% drop of income will not only affect composers. It will dramatically affect the income of musicians, recording engineers, studios and affect the purchase of music gear, music and sample software, etc.,” he wrote. “There will be a big ‘downstream’ effect.”
Giacchino is a longtime collaborator with J.J. Abrams, beginning with “Alias.” Abrams has long held that music is a crucial part to his work — in 2006 when Giacchino was conducting an orchestra recording the score of Abrams’ “Mission: Impossible III,” the New York Times reported that the filmmaker told the musicians that growing up he felt “movie music was always 51 percent of the movie.”
Beckerman said Discovery should recognize the importance of great original music in making its shows such big hits.
“Great music really serves and heightens great storytelling,” he said. “Without great music you really can’t have great television shows or great films.”