Opinion

Protect the Creators of the Soundtracks to Our Lives

By Paul Williams
July 31, 2020 at 5:00 am ET

Think about the last time you bought your favorite band’s new CD or downloaded an artist’s single. Chances are it’s been a while. Even in these uncertain times, when our favorite songs serve as a source of comfort – or as background to our work in a home office – few of us actually buy music anymore. Instead, we stream it. 

This shift to digital streaming has created a wonderful and convenient new reality for music fans across the country. Each of us now has on-demand access to nearly every song ever written. Unfortunately, streaming has also made it much harder for songwriters to get paid fairly for their work and earn a living. Where songwriters could once rely on consistent income from sales of records, tapes, CDs or downloads, now even writing a huge hit streamed millions of times may not be enough to keep food on the table. 

The reason? Most songwriters are regulated by federal rules, written nearly 80 years ago, that no longer work in the age of streaming. These decades-old regulations – called consent decrees and administered by the Department of Justice – restrict how creators can license their work, which artificially limits the value of their songs and undercuts their ability to make a living and provide for their families. 

ASCAP and BMI, which together represent more than 2 million songwriters, composers, lyricists and music publishers, are the two performing rights organizations regulated by these consent decrees. We have been working with the Justice Department to secure reforms to these rules that would ensure more competition in the music marketplace and more flexibility for creators. The department’s review of the decrees advanced this week with two days of virtual panels on these issues, and this continued interest in reform from Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim gives me hope that American songwriters could soon receive new freedom to negotiate in the free market – just like any other small business.

Unfortunately, giant media conglomerates and other big business groups are trying to preserve the old regulations, simply so they can pay below market value for the very music that attracts their audiences and customers. 

These groups are exerting their lobbying power in Washington – often transparently hiding behind the facade of small businesses – and asking the Justice Department and Congress to oppose songwriters’ ability to fairly negotiate and earn free-market rates for our work.  

In doing so, songwriters’ opponents have made one dubious claim after another. They say the consent decrees protect local musicians when, of course, the opposite is true. They argue that ASCAP and BMI want to stifle opportunities to hear music and control what songs are played. But why would songwriters ever want to make it harder for people to listen to our music? These businesses, which typically champion the free market and operate under few government restrictions themselves, strangely want ASCAP and BMI, which operate as not-for-profits, to be even more regulated.

The reality is simple: Songwriters are some of the most heavily regulated small-business owners in this country. And all we’re asking for is a system that allows us to be paid a fair price for our creations – just like any other business that makes something people value. 

As part of the DOJ review, ASCAP and BMI have proposed a set of measured, reasonable reforms that give songwriters the best chance of receiving the fair market value of their work without upending the ability of American music fans to listen to the songs they love when and where they want. While there is a wide range of changes the DOJ could consider, ASCAP is pursuing an approach that can work for all stakeholders, keeping our eye on the ball of protecting songwriters and composers instead of swinging for the fences and ultimately striking out.  

Our goal is to achieve for music creators what Americans have a right to expect in a democracy: a level playing field. 

We hope the DOJ will follow this reasonable path and do what it can to protect those who make the music that has served – and will continue to serve – as the soundtrack to our lives.

 

Paul Williams is an Oscar-, Grammy- and Golden Globe-winning Hall of Fame songwriter and the president and chairman of the board of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

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