Following Outrage, Discovery Networks Backs Down on Composer Ultimatum

Jon Burlingame

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Discovery Networks, which last month unveiled a new business model that would have all but assured series composers a drastic income drop, has scuttled that plan in response to outrage expressed by the media music community.

This means that the shows on Discovery, Animal Planet, HGTV, Food Network and other Discovery-owned platforms, will continue to feature their familiar themes and underscores, and the composers who wrote that music will continue to be paid the royalties that they have always enjoyed.

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The Production Music Association, which represents many of the composers whose work adorns these shows, Thursday afternoon issued a statement that said, in part, “Discovery has decided that their U.S. channels will remain operating ‘as is’ under the traditional performing-rights model.”

A Discovery spokesman confirmed to Variety that the networks will no longer demand that composers give up all performance royalties paid for U.S. airings and sign away their ability to collect royalties on past shows on its networks. Composers had been warned late last year that they must comply or face the deletion of all their music from Discovery shows.

Agreeing to this, they estimated, would have meant an 80 to 90% drop in income from these shows. Those who scored such series as “Gold Rush,” “Deadliest Catch” and “Alaskan Bush People” fought back, declaring publicly that they would not agree to Discovery’s demands (described by several as “unprofessional,” “bullying,” “a corporate money grab” and “evil”).

Discovery hoped to shift to “direct source licenses” which would enable them to eliminate composer royalty payments as collected and distributed by performing-rights societies ASCAP, BMI and SESAC. Composers argued that those royalties were vital to stay in business because initial fees to create the music were already too low.

Variety broke this story on Dec. 13. The days that followed saw an unprecedented unity among media composers, condemning the plan and expressing concern that, if this tactic were to be followed by other outlets, making a living as a media composer in Los Angeles would eventually become impossible.

Oscar winner and Academy music-branch governor Michael Giacchino (“Jurassic World,” “Up”) was among the most outspoken, declaring on Twitter that “Discovery already pays some of the lowest rates for original score and now they want to rob you of the one way you can actually make financial success of the job? And then not only is Discovery willing to outright rob you, they then also want to steal everything you already wrote for them in years past? That is sickening.”

More than 11,000 composers and musicians joined a campaign, “Your Music Your Future,” to educate composers on their rights and how best to ensure their financial future based on the performing-rights system that has compensated media composers for decades. Several Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning composers lent their support to the campaign, including John Powell, John Debney, Bear McCreary, Carter Burwell and others.

On Thursday, the Production Music Association publicly thanked Shawn White, vice president of global music for Discovery, “for this decision. We greatly appreciate this and look forward as a community to working together with Discovery to provide their programming with the best quality music possible,” the PMA statement said.

Sources said that Discovery executives met with top composers over the past few weeks, leading to this turnaround. “I don’t think they thought it through,” one composer said. “It was an economic move by businessmen who didn’t fully understand the ramifications it could possibly have on their internal operations. It would get messy.”

Said composer Nathan Barr, a prominent voice in the Your Music Your Future campaign: “I want to acknowledge Discovery’s decision to back down. Had they pushed through, it would have strengthened a movement which is already threatening to turn the occupation of ‘composer’ into a hobby. In a time when music is being devalued in so many markets and platforms, it’s more important than ever to fight for our right as composers to make a living doing so.”

The Society of Composers & Lyricists issued its own statement, applauding Discovery’s reversal but promising to “continue its discussion with Discovery to ensure this policy reversion applies to all delivery platforms.”