The old saying goes that musicians can never be politicians and politicians can never be musicians. In 2017, however, the lines between the two have been blurred to near perfection.
The music industry has become infested with lobbyists who are all too eager to pull the levers of government to make more cash for themselves, taking advantage of songwriters and music consumers in the process. They have politicized what was once one of the most unifying, apolitical industries in all of American culture.
Today, it seems that we can’t even have a day go by without a ceremony or event being turned into a de facto political rally.
The most recent example of this came last week at the Grammy Awards, when Neil Portnow, the president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, ranted about how the Trump administration should “protect singers and songwriters” by advancing Big Music’s legislative priorities.
"Behind the extraordinary artists you see here on our stage are hundreds and thousands of unsung musicians and songwriters, producers, engineers — American creators, whose jobs suffer from outdated rules and regulations, some going back 100 years."
While it’s true that some music executives and publishers might be taking advantage of songwriters, Big Music’s legislative priorities will only make matters worse.
The primary “outdated regulation” that the bigwigs in the industry are pushing to reform -- and that Portnow was subtly referring to in his Grammy remarks -- is the monopoly-restraining music consent decrees that have been in place for over 70 years.
Big Music asserts that repealing (or at least modifying) these decrees will thicken the paychecks of exploited singers and songwriters, but the truth of the matter is that removing them will help none other than the lobbyists themselves. It will enrich the cohorts of monstrous monopolies at the expense of everyone else.
The two largest Performing Rights Organizations (PROs), American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI), control the rights to over 90 percent of the songs in our music catalogs. Since these collectives have a clear incentive to leverage their market share by engaging in predatory pricing, the government established consent decrees to impose a restraint on their power.
By mandating that blanket song licenses are provided to purchasers on demand at a fixed price, this 100-percent licensing system ensures that copyright prices are kept at a reasonable rate. It permits consumers and businesses to utilize music at a fair price, while still allowing for the music collectives to break record billion-dollar sales numbers every year.
Although Big Music clearly should have a lot to cheer about, they are still not satisfied. They want to see this 100-percent licensing system replaced with what they call “fractional licensing.”
If enacted, this anarchic system would make the music industry wilder than the Wild West. It would force small businesses like bars and retail stores to be faced with the near-impossible task of negotiating with every single copyright owner of a given song in order to strike a licensing deal.
Some songs have dozens of credited artists. Some have 1 percent stakeholders that will senselessly hold up the negotiating process. And some are even embroiled in rights disputes that will lead to the addition of more credited songwriters at a later date.
If small businesses are tasked with worrying about all of these moving parts, the end result will undoubtedly be gridlock, litigation, and higher prices for all. That’s why conservatives and liberals alike agree that we cannot afford to tamper with the current licensing system that is in place.
And yet, Big Music is pushing harder for reform than ever before.
I find it rather funny how these lobbyists try to sell their political wishes as both a liberal and conservative pipe dream, depending on who is in power.
When President Obama was in the White House, they branded 100-percent licensing as a punitive, outdated conservative model that should be replaced by the administration. Yet, Obama’s DOJ investigated their concerns thoroughly for two years and ruled that they are incorrect. 100-percent licensing remained the law of the land.
But now that President Trump is at the helm, fractional licensing has suddenly been re-billed as a top free market reform issue that Attorney General Jeff Sessions should examine closely. “The Republicans are pretty much horrified by the regulation of songwriters in the first place,” well-known entertainment lawyer Dina LaPolt said earlier this month. “They see copyright as private property that the government shouldn’t regulate.”
Attorney General Sessions should not fall for Big Music’s smoke and mirrors. 100-percent licensing has received overwhelming support from both sides of the aisle because it is not a partisan issue. It is the only way to ensure that the music industry functions at optimal capacity.
Here’s to hoping that the Trump administration does not make these music regulations go off key anytime soon.