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When Lyrics Get Posted Online, Who Gets Paid?

May 9, 2014
Originally published on May 12, 2014 3:26 pm

Any time a song is popular, you'll find people debating it. And at some point during that debate, someone is going to Google the lyrics.

There are roughly 5 million searches for lyrics per day on Google, according to LyricFind. Those searches often lead to websites that post lyrics to lots of songs — and, in many cases, sites that post ads alongside those lyrics.

David Lowery, frontman and songwriter for Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, is waging war on the sites he believes make money off song lyrics but don't pay the songwriter. Once he took a closer look at where his music was making money on the Internet, he realized: There were more people searching to find lyrics to his songs than searching to illegally download mp3s of his music. And he wasn't making money off those searches. Last November, after months of exhaustive and systematic Googling, he released something called The Undesirable Lyric Website List.

The National Music Publishers Association seized upon this list, and announced that it would be sending take-down notices to every single name. At the top of that list was the very popular Rap Genius.

Rap Genius has been around for a few years, and it's extremely popular. No ads, lots of traffic and, just recently, a major investment from one of the hottest venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. The founder of Rap Genius, Ilan Zechory, says the site doesn't belong on Lowery's list. Because it's way more than just transcribed lyrics. He says the site is more like a social network: a discussion board for music geeks and even some of the musicians themselves — prominent rappers like Nas and Rick Ross — to comment on their own lyrics. Artists, the founders say, love the site.

Just this week, Rap Genius announced that, despite its opinion that the site falls under the criteria for fair use, it's going to pay songwriters for posting their lyrics. It's just easier than fighting with music publishers, who've been very successful at going after other lyric sites in the past few years. Other sites on the list have started paying as well — though Lowery says the payments don't add up to much for him. "I'm a hundredaire," he says. But it's unusual for the Internet to come along and figure out a brand-new revenue stream for musicians: Rather than making money off the music, the Internet has provided a marketplace for just the words.

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OK, maybe you've had this moment. You're trying to recall the lyrics to a song. You know the first line, can't remember the second line.

(Singing) Trailer for sale or rent...

And then what? So you go to Google for help. Many websites will serve up those words to you and many feature advertising. Sometimes the lyrics on those sites appear without the songwriter's permission.

NPR's Zoe Chace has the story of one songwriter who decided to fight back.

ZOE CHACE, BYLINE: The songwriter, David Lowery. The song, he sang it for me.

DAVID LOWERY: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey, like being stoned...

CHACE: A hit for his band, Cracker. He also wrote this...

LOWERY: Ah-hem, let's see. Get the right key here.

(Singing) Take the skinheads bowling. Take them bowling.

CHACE: Lowry sold albums, toured the country - all pretty lucrative. But Lowery remembers when he first started to think about the value of the words to his songs - the words alone. He was touring in late 2002 and he decided to play this one song, "Kerosene Hat." But there was a problem, he couldn't remember the lyrics.

LOWERY: It's actually hard to remember the lyrics to all of the songs...


LOWERY: ...especially if you haven't played them in a long time.

CHACE: He had to Google his own song. And he found all these websites, some of them with advertising making money. He assumed money he thought, that should be his.

LOWERY: I wrote those lyrics. I came up with those lyrics and I put the words together in such a way that people found them valuable and they wanted those words.

CHACE: David Lowery fumed over this for the last decade, trying to figure out how to go after these websites.

LOWERY: We've evolved these parasitic middlemen, who extract value that rightfully should go to the songwriter.

CHACE: And recently, he came up with a way to strike back. Public shaming. After much Googling, he came up with a list of 50 websites that were not paying artists.

LOWERY: The Undesirable Lyric Website List.

CHACE: Showed it to David Israelite, the head of a music publisher's trade group, who decided to hold this press conference, announcing that they'd be sending out 50 take down notices to the 50 sites on the list. And public enemy number one?

DAVID ISRAELITE: Rap Genius. Yes, Rap Genius is on this list. In fact, I believe it's number one.

LOWERY: It's number one.

CHACE: Rap Genius, one of the top song lyric websites. The guys who run it, they heard this threat, and they were kind of amused.

ILAN ZECHORY: My name is Ilan. I'm 25 years old.


ZECHORY: And we are at the Rap Genius office, which is in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. Tom's here, he's chillin'.


CHACE: Ilan hands me a bottled water. The label says Baller Water. There's a big neon diamond on the wall, a deck in the back. Rap genius says they don't belong on the list of undesirable websites. We're not stealing lyrics, they say. We are enhancing them.

Here's what Rap Genius does. Say I'm listening this Kanye song, "Mercy."


CHACE: Got it?


CHACE: Well, if you go to Rap Genius's site and type in the song, "Mercy," the lyrics come up. Turns out it's: It is a weeping and a moaning and a gnashing of teeth. Then if you click on those lyrics, a little window pops up with an explanation. It's a biblical reference.

ZECHORY: This verse describes the plight of those who will be sent to hell. Kanye is implying that his presence in the game brings hell to other rappers.

CHACE: Rap Genius has become immensely popular. They don't have ads on their site, but they do have $15 million of Silicon Valley investment capital. And Ilan, the Rap Genius guy, says the artists love his site. He says what they've created is something brand new, all the commentary, the exegesis. Even some of the rappers themselves comment on their own lyrics.

Nobody has said to you, oh, you're stealing those, those are mine?

ZECHORY: David Lowry.

CHACE: David Lowry, the songwriter from Cracker. It was like the battle of the bands. Cracker versus Rap Genius. Songwriter versus website. The battle of the bands could have been decided in a courtroom, but the music industry is scary and lawyers and lawsuits are expensive. So just this week Rap Genius announced it's licensed up. It's going to pay the publishers - the songwriters, including David Lowry, who says that other lyric sites have also been caving and getting licensed, and now the checks are rolling in every time someone looks up the words hey, hey, hey, like being stoned.

So now he knows just what those words are worth.

LOWERY: Lyric websites are not a big revenue source for me. It would be in the high hundreds a year. I'm a hundredair.

CHACE: Less than $1,000 a year?

LOWERY: I think probably less than $1,000 in my case.

CHACE: So not much. But this is a rare case where the Internet comes along and figures out a brand-new way for musicians to make money - not off the music, just the words alone.

Zoe Chace, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.