To Protect Music, We Need to First Protect Songwriters

Whether we find ourselves in the shadow of tragedy or the glow of celebrating life’s achievements, we often turn to music to translate our emotions and create new memories. These moments are made richer thanks to a special community of songwriters living in Nashville, New York, Los Angeles and many other corners of the country who write the notes and lyrics to the songs we love. It’s this same community that comes together during times of need, using music to raise money for disaster relief or bring awareness to injustices happening in our neighborhoods or workplaces.

As a member of this community, I’m always touched when someone tells me a song of mine had special meaning for them. Whether it’s someone who was raised by a single mother telling me that “You and Me Against the World” was their anthem, or a proud dad telling me his little girl is learning to play “Rainbow Connection” on the piano. This ability to connect to and through music deserves to be protected now and for future generations.

Unfortunately, while technology has moved the music industry forward, giving fans incredible new ways to access their favorite songs, songwriters have been left behind, disadvantaged by laws that prevent them from earning fair compensation in the digital age. The good news? Today, we stand at a critical juncture faced with the opportunity to make real progress toward safeguarding songwriting for the future.

Thanks to champions like Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) — a fellow songwriter himself — Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), as well as Reps. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) and Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), there is bipartisan legislation pending in both houses of Congress that aims to improve the way music is valued. This legislation, the Music Modernization Act, includes provisions that will help level the playing field for songwriters and music users alike.

It starts with reforming the judicial process used to settle disputes over what rates songwriters should be paid when their music is performed. This legislation would change ASCAP and BMI rate court procedures to make the rate-setting process for performance rights consistent with other federal litigation by randomly assigning a federal judge. The purpose behind requiring random assignment of judges is to more closely mimic the free market, where each music licensing negotiation typically involves a different set of parties, facts and circumstances.

A second key provision in this bill involves amending Section 114(i) of the Copyright Act so that a judge could consider all relevant evidence when determining songwriter compensation from digital audio music streaming services— including what record labels and artists make for the exact same performance. As it stands today, this apples to apples comparison is prohibited by law.

The MMA also replaces the “bulk NOI” process which has allowed streaming companies to hold onto royalties that they should be paying out to songwriters and music publishers, and it utilizes a free market, “willing buyer, willing seller” rate standard for setting mechanical royalties.

Though many challenges remain for songwriters when it comes to earning fair value for their work, on balance this is a notable improvement over how the system currently operates. By enabling judges representing a variety of perspectives to consider a broader set of relevant evidence when determining rates for music creators, we can at least hope for compensation for our music that better reflects its value to the people who listen to it and the businesses that benefit from it.

In addition to being favored by politicians on all sides of the political spectrum, the music, technology and broadcasting industries have come together in a truly unprecedented consensus to support this bill. If ever there was a time for reform in the music industry, it’s now.

American songwriting is among our country’s greatest exports—enjoyed by billions of music fans all over the world. But this is an industry that desperately needs our laws to catch up with today’s technologies in order to continue creating the songs that are the soundtrack to our lives. What we need is a fair market value for our music. Shouldn’t the government grant songwriters the same right to earn what our products are worth as it does for all property owners?

I urge Congress to move this consensus legislation through quickly so we don’t lose out on this opportunity to give the songwriting community a fair chance at a fair value.


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

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