Congress, It’s Time to Pay Musicians

by | Jan 28, 2018

The Grammys are coming to New York City. And Congress just did. On Friday, the House Judiciary Committee held a field hearing in the city, where Neil Portnow, president of the Recording Academy, and the artists Aloe Blacc and Booker T. Jones appeared. They testified in support of legislation that protects the rights of artists and helps them receive fairer compensation for their creative works.

But it’s not enough for Congress to hold hearings. It must pass the “Music Bus” bill, which will benefit the financial interests of musicians.

Just how tough is the financial situation for most musicians? The industry’s global revenue declined to about $15 billion in 2015 from almost $40 billion in the late 1990s. This contraction has hit music’s middle class: the people you’ve never heard of but who write, record and produce songs you know by heart.

For example, the number of full-time songwriters living in Nashville has dropped 80 percent since 2000. In Austin, Tex., 70 percent of musicians earn less than $10,000 a year from music, and 32 percent don’t even make minimum wage. Music creators simply “cannot afford to make a living,” said Daryl Friedman, the head of industry and government relations for the Recording Academy.

Passing the Music Bus bill would go a long way to helping musicians earn a better paycheck. It’s actually an omnibus bill composed of three acts:

First, the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act, which establishes a performance right for artists. Right now, radio stations don’t have to pay artists whose songs they play on the airwaves (the stations pay performance royalties to the music publishers and the songwriters). The United States is the only developed country where this is the case. This act would require stations to pay artists and record companies a royalty. It also includes the Allocation for Music Producers Act, which would enshrine in law the right for producers to receive royalties due them. The Fair Play, Fair Pay Act has bipartisan support. But the legacy radio broadcasters oppose this measure.

Second, the Classics Act, which closes the loophole in federal copyright law that prevents recordings from before 1972 from receiving compensation. Even the United States Copyright Office has noted the inconsistency that pre-1972 works aren’t covered adequately with copyright protection. The Classics Act would allow for the payment of royalties to artists and record labels that made songs many decades ago. This act, which would particularly benefit older musicians who are struggling financially, also has bipartisan support.

Third, the Music Modernization Act, which creates a blanket license for mechanical royalties. (Mechanicals are the royalty payments due publishers and songwriters when their songs are reproduced in various formats like CDs, LPs, downloads and streaming.) Currently a copyright board determines the rate of compensation according to a fixed legal standard. But this act would enable the board to base rates on the market value of what a buyer or seller is willing to pay. A change to this more dynamic standard would mean that songwriters could be compensated more in line with the market.

Despite the bipartisan support for these measures, it will still take substantial effort to pressure Congress to act. “We’ve seen a growth of interest in creator activism like never before,” Mr. Friedman said. The Recording Academy has marshaled significant resources toward promoting these bills — for instance, starting the Grammy District Advocate Program, in which thousands of members of the academy meet with elected officials every year in support of legislation. Until now, Congress has been waiting for some type of industry consensus and bipartisan support to emerge, and now it has. By finally passing the Music Bus bill, compensation for musicians will be more in tune with what they deserve.

[Article was also published in the New York Times]