Late last week as most of the world was preparing to take some down time and enjoy a Thanksgiving spread with their families, streaming giant Spotify quietly removed albums, and in some cases entire comedian catalogs from its platform. This effected all levels of comedians from working comics to some of the biggest names in the game including Jim Gaffigan, John Mulaney, Dave Attell, Mike Birbiglia, Chad Daniels, Tom Segura, and Kyle Kinane.
Obviously this caused both rage and confusion from comedians as many of them took to social media asking what exactly was happening. These pleas for answers feel on deaf ears as Spotify didn’t responding to their requests for answers on the whereabouts of their work. The source of the comedian complaints came down to artist’s literary copyright royalties. Just like musicians, comedians are owed money when their material is played on any radio station or streaming platform. The comics are stating that when their publishing companies approached Spotify and asked for said royalties, Spotify decided it was easier to remove the albums in question rather than pay comedians what they are legally owed.
Artist publishing is a common practice in the music space, companies like ASCAP and BMI have long collected artist royalties for decades. However, the concept is fairly new to comedy and this event seems to be an inflection point for the industry as billion dollar streaming platforms might have to reconcile with the idea that they haven’t paid comics accordingly for years.
On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, comedian Gianmarco Soresi shared an email that Spoken Giants CEO Jim King sent to all comedians the agency represented. According to their website, Spoken Giants launched in 2020 and is “the first global rights administration company for the owners and creators of spoken word copyrights.” Which essentially means they handle publishing royalties for comedians, the first of its kind. They manage the work of an impressive roster of comedians such as Patton Oswalt, Lewis Black, Jeff Foxworthy, Tom Segura, Gabriel Iglesias, Elayne Boosler, Roy Wood Jr., Mike Birbiglia, Kathleen Madigan, and the estates of Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Don Rickles, and Ralphie May. While this does not appear to be happening specifically to Spoken Giant’s roster, the company appears to be the ones leading the charge on this issue.
The email from King states…
Based on Thanksgiving communications with Spotify it appears Spotify has started to take down comedy as a category, affecting your works and the works of other comedians both from Spoken Giants and elsewhere. We do not have an agreement with Spotify and this must be an indication they know they don’t have all the rights in place to serve this content. We are working to contact Spotify to determine what the issues are and respond accordingly. Our mission is to serve you and create value for your copyrights. This is not impacting any other platforms such as Pandora or Sirius. We will provide further information as we understand the situation.
Like musicians, comedians can and usually collect royalties for the sound recording via SoundExchange. But the argument here lies within the literary copyright, the actual jokes comics write down on a page to create that piece of work. A company like Spoken Giants set up to help comics collect any performing or mechanical royalties (or “reproduction” royalties) which that literary copyright defines. It’s something that hadn’t been done in the comedy space and King’s email is essentially stating that whatever right Spotify claimed didn’t take into account those royalties. This could mean comics are owed years of back royalties and it can also effect the model for future payouts. But it appears rather than come to an agreement with the comedians, they decided to just pull comedy from its platform.
This dispute currently seems to be only with Spotify as King’s message was quick to point out that other platforms like Pandora and SiriusXM are paying royalties. As The Laugh Button also operates a record label and we can state that Pandora and its parent company SiriusXM not only pays royalties to comedians, they are far and away the largest payouts in the industry – distributing dollars per spin as opposed to fractions of a penny per spin like most streaming services.
Right now it appears that Spotify is doing what most tech companies do in these situations and that is remain quiet while publishing companies are probably fielding many calls and emails from their clients. The streaming giant doesn’t seem to be winning much favor with the spoken word category lately. After touting its desire to be a leader in this space they made aggressive podcast acquisitions that walled off previously easy-to-get content, made controversial show/host acquisitions, and earned just as many complaints about its interface from podcast fans. Removing the entire category of many comedians adds to the list of complaints that can be made against the streamer’s quest for spoken word dominance.
Just by looking at the sheer number of comedy removed it’s obvious that a resolution needs to be made and we’re betting lawyers will get involved sooner than later. The other aspect to this situation which isn’t even discussed here is the fact that Spotify is a podcast distribution platform. A large chunk of the most popular podcasts around are hosted by comedians including ones they’ve spent millions to acquire. Comedians are more valuable to Spotify than many realize and it’s a shame things are currently in a situation that positions the platform as not caring about this.
This is a developing story…
On Wednesday night around 9pm ET, Spoken Giants sent this email to its membership
“An update on Spotify’s takedown of material from Spoken Giants members and other comedians…
The reasons for Spotify’s decision are not clear and our legal and negotiations teams are working to re-engage with Spotify to establish proper licensing for your underlying literary rights. Spoken Giants has been working in good faith to negotiate a blanket license for your comedy composition rights. In the last couple days we have seen online a report that Spotify indicates they are currently working with us to resolve this situation. We wish this was true and are working to make this true!
Important points for you:
· Spoken Giants represents you, comedians, who should get paid for the comedy content you write, just like songwriters get paid for the songs they write.
· Spoken Giants wants your works that we represent to be available as widely as possible, across as many platforms as possible.
· As we’ve worked to establish fair, equitable licenses with Spotify, Spoken Giants has never requested that Spotify take down comedy content.
· Spotify unilaterally decided to take down content on the night before Thanksgiving, after business hours were over for the day and for the long holiday weekend.
· A broad spectrum of comedians and record labels are being negatively impacted by Spotify’s retaliatory response to our professionally worded, legally sound requests to discuss fair compensation.
· Spotify has not advised us on if, or when, they will restore comedy content on their service. Currently, so much great comedy is unavailable on Spotify because Spotify refuses to discuss paying you for what you write.
· Not only is Spotify trying to punish comedians represented by Spoken Giants for asserting their right to be paid for the content they write but it appears that Spotify is also taking down comedy written by comedians who aren’t affiliated with Spoken Giants.
Our goal is to represent you, the members of Spoken Giants, and to work in a cooperative method with the platforms delivering your comedy content. We have reached out to Spotify to rectify this as quickly as possible, keeping in mind your best interests. I will endeavor to provide regular updates on where things stand and welcome your feedback. Thank you so much for your patience and your continued belief in Spoken Giants.”
A rep from Spotify released the following statement to Billboard…
“Spotify has paid significant amounts of money for the content in question, and would love to continue to do so. However, given that Spoken Giants is disputing what rights various licensors have, it’s imperative that the labels that distribute this content, Spotify and Spoken Giants come together to resolve this issue to ensure this content remains available to fans around the globe.”
Which is basically a 50 Billion dollar company that gets all its value on the work of others stating, “we think we’re paying enough.”
Jim King spoke to Billboard and stated that they are basing their business off the music industry rights model and asking to be treated the same way. He then revealed a bit of a timeline to the situation stating. Upon Spoken Giants’ formation introductory letters were sent to all platforms involved letting them know what their intentions were. While other negotiated, Spotify did not want to and mentioned the possibility of taking down content early on. Afterward, Spotify made no attempt to discuss this matter further until at 5pm on Thanksgiving Eve they sent an email stating they were “taking it all down.”
The takedown also goes beyond artists repped by Spoken Giants. Robin Williams, John Mulaney, and Kevin Hart were removed from the platform and they are not signed with the company.
Here’s our running list of comedians who had some or all of their material removed from Spotify. This list is being gathered from talent directly, us checking Spotify, or anecdotally from others. This is by no means a complete list but we will update it as we learn of more.
Corey Ryan Forrester
Larry The Cable Guy
Roy Wood Jr.