Outdated laws put music’s ‘professional class’ at risk

I still remember a talk I heard at Bowling Green State University by Philip Glass, one of the most distinguished music composers of our time. He emphasized how important it is for composers to understand their rights and to band together to protect their livelihoods.

As a professional composer myself, I have heeded his advice throughout my career, trying to protect the value of my music despite all the changes that technology has brought to the music industry. But I never could have done this alone.

{mosads}Like most professional composers, I license my work as part of a collective. That means I belong to a performing rights organization (PRO) that negotiates licenses, tracks public performances and distributes royalties on my behalf so I can focus on my creative process. Even if I had the time for the overwhelming amount of tasks that it would take to license my music on my own, it would be virtually impossible to do.

However, the collective licensing system that I depend on to make a living is on the verge of collapse.

Just last month, I was in Washington D.C. with a group of fellow music creators to meet with key Members of Congress to urge them update the antiquated laws that are preventing songwriters and composers from earning a fair wage in the modern music marketplace.

For the past 75 years, the federal government has largely determined how professionals like me are compensated by placing strict rules upon how PROs negotiate rates. Things have changed a lot since these rules were put in place back in 1941, about ten years before people had televisions in their homes. But today, it means songwriters and composers are more heavily regulated than the huge media companies that use our music. No other creative industry works this way.

If music creators can’t earn a competitive wage, the system will inevitably break down, and the music will stop flowing to music lovers and fans.

My original compositions have been performed around the world – The Philadelphia Symphony, The Boston Symphony Orchestra, The London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Tokyo String Quartet, “The President’s Own” U.S. Marine Band – and at many festivals – Aspen, Tanglewood, Vail. I’ve also had the honor of receiving the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music and the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. Music is my oxygen, and I’m so gratified when people want to use and listen to something I’ve created. And I think it’s only fair that I see a fair market value for my work.

There are many composers like me who work to create new music which adds to the repertory of American music. We are not part of mainstream pop music, and many of us are not performers. Some of us are well-known in our respective genres, and we strive to be inclusive in reaching out to broad audiences. We are, in a sense, music’s “professional class” – the thousands of composers and lyricists whose work is listened to and appreciated by millions.  Even though our compositions are not in heavy rotation on pop radio or streamed hundreds of millions of times on Spotify, we are successful in our chosen genres of music, and our music has tremendous value to our listeners and to American culture.

But, right now, instead of protecting our profession, the federal government is putting it at risk by not implementing changes to these outdated laws. If music creators are forced to look for new avenues for compensation, the collective licensing system – which has successfully kept the music industry afloat for decades – may not survive.

It’s time that the DOJ update these laws and stand with those who are the heart and soul of American music.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Jennifer Higdon is one of America’s most acclaimed and most frequently performed living composers. She was awarded with the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in Music as well as the 2009 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. 


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