We would never expect a NASCAR team that only drives cars built in the 1940s to win a race against today’s high-powered autos. You would never go to a doctor who only uses treatment methods that were available in the 1940s. And no video game company would design their products on 1940s-era computers. The reason, of course, is that in order to stay competitive – in any marketplace – you have to keep up with the times. Stay locked in the past, and your business is sure to fall behind. 

Just ask American songwriters, who are forced to license their work according to rules that were written in 1941 and haven’t been updated since 2001 – before the iPod even hit stores. Digital music companies have found ways to take advantage of these outdated rules, and as a result, it now takes an average of one million streams on Pandora for a songwriter and publisher to earn just $90 in royalties. Even a hit song rarely earns its songwriter more than a few thousand dollars in digital royalties. Hardly enough to make a living off of – especially when more and more consumers are moving toward streaming rather than owning the music they enjoy.


The reality is that technology is rapidly transforming the music industry – just as it has changed so many other industries. And yet, in his recent editorial (The Justice Department’s musical quagmire, 5/11/15), Greg Barnes and his friends over at the Digital Media Association (a trade association fronted by Pandora and YouTube, among others) are lobbying hard to keep the rules that govern how songwriters license their music stuck in the past.  

Anyone who understands today’s music marketplace knows that Barnes’ specter of the bully songwriter, wielding enormous market power is truly absurd. In reality, the companies that make up DiMA are standing in the way of meaningful music licensing reform because they are making money off such an outdated system. For a group of companies that pride themselves on being innovative, their position is anything but. Rather, their end goal is to pay songwriters and other music creators as little as possible, for the sake of their own profits. 

Streaming may indeed be the future of music. But these companies’ success shouldn’t have to come at the expense of American songwriters’ livelihoods. Modernizing our nation’s music licensing system – starting with the outdated ASCAP and BMI consent decrees – would make the marketplace more efficient and competitive for all stakeholders. And it’s the only way to ensure a vibrant future for American music.

Williams is an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe-winning Hall of Fame songwriter, and president and chairman of the board of ASCAP. Reach him @IMPaulWilliams.