Managing conflict and rewards in postbureaucratic work environments: The case of songwriters

piano-315012_1280by Kim de Laat

Postbureaucratic work environments are flexible, project-based settings characterized by consensus-building. They are often hailed as an improvement over the rigid job hierarchies and inflexible working conditions found in most white collar and manufacturing sectors.

Unlike traditional forms of product manufacturing, postbureaucratic work settings, such independent contracting, website design and film projects, can involve a creative process that is unpredictable. The final output is often the result of decision-making processes that are negotiated on the fly (for example, Robert De Niro’s improvisation of the line, “You talkin’ to me?” in Taxi Driver or the Beatles’ use of some accidental feedback at the beginning of ‘I Feel Fine’). In addition, the temporary nature of much postbureaucratic work, particularly in creative industries, creates uncertainty. One’s next paycheck is never guaranteed, and so there is a constant need to pursue work opportunities. It falls on the individual to maintain relationships and ties that can lead to future job opportunities. An unruly creative process and the individualization of risk means that teamwork and cooperation are especially important in postbureaucratic work projects.

In a forthcoming article in the sociology journal Work & Occupations I examine an interesting subset of postbureaucratic workers, songwriters. The role of the professional songwriter is in flux. Both popular media and the songwriters I interviewed suggest that songwriters are not getting their fair share. Often performing artists — the stars whose face and voice we typically associate with a hit song — insist on being present in songwriting sessions and receiving a share of royalties even when they contribute little. In addition, the popularity of computerized sounds from production software such as Pro Tools has led to the rise of the producer/writer hybrid, with whom songwriters must now compete for royalties.

More and more fans are listening to music on streaming websites such as Spotify and Pandora, but streaming website royalty payouts are notoriously meager, with songwriters earning less than $0.01 per stream. For example, Ellen Shipley, co-writer of ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ disclosed that her quarterly earnings for a song that was streamed more than 3 million times was less than $40. In short, songwriters are confronting increasing competition and decreasing revenue.

At the same time, songwriters are accustomed to working under conditions of uncertainty. In addition to constantly chasing the next opportunity for collaboration (songwriters almost always write in groups of two and three), the distribution of tasks varies from one project to the next. Sometimes a songwriter’s job is separated from that of her collaborators, such as when she is tasked with supplying only the lyrics and melody of a song. Other times they collaborate on all aspects of a song. From project to project, working arrangements change and songwriters must remain adaptable.

Because of the challenges — producers encroaching on royalties, performing artists or other writing partners taking credit where credit is not due — and the constant change they experience, songwriters’ working arrangements provide valuable insight into how conflict and rewards are managed amidst ongoing uncertainty.

To learn more about this, I completed in-depth interviews with 30 professional songwriters living in cities such as Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York, who specialize in all manner of popular genres (pop, rock, R&B, rap, and country). The interviews revealed that songwriters are oriented towards maximizing their professional and economic interests, but they do so in a surprising way. Rather than being combative over credits and royalties, songwriters actively pursue cooperation. They maintain two conventions in particular: (1) equal authorship and (2) professional conciliation.

First, when asked how royalty percentages (referred to as ‘splits’) are decided, every songwriter responded that they should be divided equally regardless of individual contribution. The common adage is that if there are three songwriters in the room, each one receives one third of the royalties: “write a word, get a third”. This convention is motivated by a pay it forward mentality. Many songwriters remarked that it’s difficult to be consistently ‘on’ in writing sessions. One day you might contribute more than your share, while on another day you might not be as productive. Maintaining even splits regardless of contribution helps alleviate the guilt felt on those days when one doesn’t contribute her fair share to the writing process.

Second, uncertainty motivates songwriters to be conciliatory toward writing partners. Because songwriters never know in advance which of their work projects will be successful, they don’t want to risk damaging relationships by quarreling over who deserves more credit. Songwriters are willing to accommodate a decrease in immediate rewards if it means maintaining positive working relationships which may generate further payoff in the future. In the face of jurisdictional conflict with producers and performing artists, uncertainty is mitigated by acquiescing in order to bank on future collaborations.

This research finds that conflict and cooperation are mutually reinforcing in the postbureaucratic work arrangement of songwriters: confronting conflict with cooperation ultimately leads to new work opportunities, where conflict must once again be navigated.

When trying to make sense of strategies pursued by people working in contexts of ongoing uncertainty, it is helpful to develop a more nuanced understanding of what constitutes rational, utility-maximizing behaviour. For songwriters, the rational course of action might seem to be competitive and self-interested given the conflict they face and the short-term nature of working relationships. But in actuality working arrangements recur and long-term relationships are sought, which motivates conciliatory practices.

While some suggest that postbureaucratic work marks a departure from the rationalistic working conditions of traditional bureaucratic settings, this study supports more recent findings that postbureaucratic work organizations can also be typified by rational, utility maximizing behaviour. In some respects, then, postbureaucratic work settings are similar to traditional bureaucratic forms of organizing. But they differ because all risks assumed are individualized. It is up to songwriters themselves to nurture relationships and determine whether they can afford, both in terms of finances and reputation, to be undersold when they confront conflict and uncertainty.

And unlike traditional bureaucratic work environments that operate on a five-day, 40-hour workweek schedule, the temporary work of songwriters operates along two temporal dimensions: the immediate work context of the project-of-the-day, in which interpersonal challenges must be negotiated, and a long-term trajectory in which songwriting partners envision future collaborations. Action is thus tailored in light of more immediate interpersonal challenges to facilitate future rewards. Equal authorship and conciliation mediate tensions between present-day conflict and desires for future success. In a work setting where uncertainty is ongoing, such conventions allow jurisdictional challenges and social loafing to be accommodated, and rewards to be distributed in a manner deemed fair.

Kim de Laat is a PhD candidate in sociology and instructor at the University of Toronto. Her Twitter handle is @Kimdelaat, and her publications are listed at
1 comment
  1. Howard Aldrich said:

    Kim mentions that songwriters are accustomed to working under conditions of uncertainty, which is a characteristic of many/most of the creative professions. Pierre-Michel Menger, In his recent book, The Economics of Creativity
    Art and Achievement under Uncertainty (Harvard University press, 2014) touches on similar issues. He emphasizes the tendency of elite professionals to join with others, under circumstances of uncertainty, with such behavior actually amplifying the already severe degree of inequality within the professions. By contrast, Kim focuses on songwriters’ cooperation and pursuit of nurturing relationships as a way of coping with uncertainty. I wonder what are the special conditions that songwriters face that leads to greater cooperation than Menger’s analysis would lead us to expect?

    (Menger looked at the music business, he focused more on musicians, singers, and performers rather than songwriters, by the way.)

    I’m looking forward to reading Kim’s article & I can also recommend Menger’s book, if you are interested in uncertainty and the creative professions.

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