Country singer/songwriter and occasional music rights activist Rosanne Cash said sometimes well-meaning fans come up to her and ask about the best way for them to support their favorite musicians. She kind of laughed about it.
“Just buy the record. Don’t stream,” said Cash, who performs a special one-hour set at Sunday’s “Mountain Stage” in Princeton.
But people forget. Songs aren’t free, even if web-based services like Spotify make it seem like they are. Like radio, streaming services make their money from advertising. They also earn money from premium services or subscriptions, like satellite radio.
The problem for musicians in the recording industry is that streaming services don’t pay royalties like radio. Cash testified before a U.S. House Judiciary subcommittee discussing intellectual property and music licensing that one service streamed her songs 600,000 times.
She got a check for $114, which, if broken down by number of plays, comes to .00019 of a cent each.
“People have gotten used to instant gratification,” Cash said. “They think music should be free.”
Cash said she doesn’t think the Internet is bad or that streaming sites are evil. It’s just that many of the laws that govern what these companies are required to pay were drafted before the Internet was a viable place for commerce. And like a lot of other businesses, they only pay what they have to — which, in this case, is next to nothing.
“Performance royalties has always been a painful issue,” she said, “but it’s the only area in American culture where you can take somebody’s copyright, use it at will and then tell the creator or copyright owner that ‘Oh, it’ll be good promotion for you.’”
She’s doubtful. Everybody needs to make a living, and she’s no different.
Her latest record, “The River and The Thread,” came out in January. Co-written with her husband, Grammy Award-winning songwriter and producer John Leventhal, it’s been called one of her best.
She thinks so, too, although she believes it’s also kind of miraculous that it came to be.
“It took us 20 years to figure out how to really do it, how to bring our best selves and not our marital stuff into the studio, as we’ve been wont to do in the past,” she said.
The record was a neat split of duties. She wrote all the lyrics, while Leventhal composed all the music. The only exception is the song “When the Master Calls the Roll,” a Civil War-inspired ballad co-written with Cash’s ex-husband, Rodney Crowell, and partly influenced by her kids.
“My daughter, Chelsea Crowell, wrote a Civil War song called, ‘Where the Hell is Robert E. Lee?,’ and I was kind of jealous,” Cash said.
When she and Leventhal were getting ready to record, their son happened to be studying the Civil War. It all came together with music Crowell and Leventhal were working on.
She said, “I asked Rodney if he would help me rework the lyrics as a Civil War ballad.”
Writing with your ex-husband or having your current spouse work with your previous one isn’t all that weird — at least, it wasn’t for them.
“Rodney and I worked out our stuff a long time ago.”
The acrimony is long past. They made peace for the sake of their kids years ago and never lost respect for each other as musicians and writers.
“John and Rodney stayed friendly.”
“The River and The Thread” is about the things she’s connected to.
“It’s both metaphorical and allegorical,” she said. “The river being the Mississippi and how I’m connected to that and the past and present.”
Also, Cash was learning to sew when she made this record. She joined a sewing circle and talked about sewing with her friend, designer Natalie Chanin.
“Natalie has a company called Alabama Chanin,” Cash said. “It’s mostly what I wear on stage. She hand-stitches these gorgeous clothes.”
Cash said she got “The Thread” for the title of her record from something Chanin told her.
“You have to love the thread,” she said.
Cash said, “That was a chilling statement to me.”
The sewing was about a process. The thread was part of that process. It tied it all together, and the thread and the river together made sense to her.
Cash is thrilled that the record has been so well-received, particularly in a time when there’s so many things competing for attention.
“You don’t know if it’s going to be accepted,” she said. “There’s a lot of noise to get above. I feel very satisfied with it and just excited about doing good work.
“I feel lucky.”
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