LA WEEKLY: Music Modernization Act Is an Important Display of Political Harmony

December 28, 2018
Opinion: Op-Eds

LA WEEKLY

If there's one thing in this chaotic world that brings people together, it's music. It's that love for music that has united people across the music industry and across the political spectrum, to support the Music Modernization Act. We two are among those strong supporters – because we're proud of this pitch-perfect and bipartisan bill that helps musicians get paid fairly for their enormous contributions to culture and society.  One of us is an original cosponsor of this bill and the other is a Grammy Award winning and two-time Oscar nominated American songwriter, famous for writing songs for Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin, and other musical legends, and a member of Songwriters of North America (SONA). Together, we recognize that this bill will shift the landscape in favor of hardworking creative artists not only in California, but across the country.

What's critical about the historic Music Modernization Act is that it fixes a broken music licensing system by helping “oldies” artists get their royalties; making sure that songwriters and publishers have an easier and more accurate way to license their work; and supporting the hardworking mixing engineers and producers who operate behind the board. 

You may have guessed that this kind of unity means something must've been really messed up with our music licensing system, and you'd be right. Clearly there was treble, er, trouble with the prior music licensing system. Copyright law, like a great beat or killer guitar solo, is fundamental to music and the music business. It's the method through which songs, recordings, and sheet music become intellectual property for their creators. 

Let’s break this down. Every time you listen to music – including hit records like “Man in the Mirror” that one of us wrote for The King of Pop– you can thank hundreds of pages of copyright law gathering dust in the Library of Congress. Here’s the problem: until recently, the laws that let artists, songwriters, and producers get paid for their work were written in 1909--more than ten years before radio became popular. Imagine the technological advances that have been made over the past century, and how they have affected the tracking, collection and reporting of music income. The law as it was didn't properly protect music creators, especially the artists behind the songs like songwriters and producers.

The law was updated in 1976 but still failed to protect recordings and the people that created them before 1972.  That means the songwriters behind hits like “The Twist,” “I Want You Back,” and “Respect” have virtually no way to receive fair compensation for the public performance of their work. Worse still, the current licensing system has no good way to account for digital streaming, which has become the preferred method of listening to music, and which contributes about $7.4 billion to global music revenues. Often, songwriters living paycheck to paycheck get shortchanged when their songs are played through streaming services.

The last piece of the legal puzzle involves the logistics of royalty payments. The entity responsible for paying out royalties – SoundExchange – doesn’t have a statutory process in place to pay producers, mixers, and engineers, which means that these creatives often don’t get paid what they deserve for the grueling hours in the studio, and the substantial differences they make to the quality of the music. But not anymore.

 All of this was changed the minute the Music Modernization Act of 2018 was signed into law. Now streaming services can go straight to a newly-formed licensing collective for mechanical licenses. Songs written before 1972 will be covered by federal copyright law. And SoundExchange can finally give royalties directly to the engineers and producers who make it all possible.

It’s no surprise that people with different functions in the music industry – writers, performers, record labels, publishers – often have competing interests. But, after an intense year of negotiations, this bill brought together nearly every major player to help creators get paid for their work. Recently, President Trump signed the Music Modernization Act into law. For those tired of the cacophony coming from Washington, this bill is proof that political harmony is possible. That should be music to all of our ears.  

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