Technology robbed American songwriters of their income — it’s time the law catches up

Technology robbed American songwriters of their income — it’s time the law catches up
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I’m songwriter Steve Bogard. You don’t know my name because I’m not the Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Billy Joel kind of songwriter with concert and merchandise revenue. I’m the kind who only occasionally performs my compositions at songwriter rounds, benefits and sometimes for a free trip somewhere. I’m the “journeyman” songwriter no one knows, who has shown up for decades to my job writing songs for artists to record.

Thirty-five years ago, I moved to Nashville with my wife and two kids in a U-Haul truck with a Big Wheel strapped to the back. Without a job and with only enough money for a couple of months’ expenses, I pursued the risky dream of writing songs for a living.

With the help of a couple of people I had met in the business, within a year I was writing songs with “big-time” songwriters whose names I’d only read in Billboard Magazine. During this pre-internet, Vinyl, Cassette, CD era it was wise, but not really necessary for a songwriter like me to know all the “Copyright Act” details governing my royalties.

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If you were talented and worked your tail off, you had a real chance to be successful enough to earn a good living and raise your family. If you had songs recorded by big name artists or wrote a classic, you might continue getting paid for many years, or consider selling those royalty rights for something like retirement when that time came. I’m proud to have been blessed to climb some of those hills.

 

In the early 2000’s the songwriting profession changed, seemingly overnight. As technology exploded, one of my new songs was suddenly available — for free — on 1,100 websites a week before the album was even released.

Over the course of a few years, the bottom dropped out of my dream career. Not because people didn’t want and love my songs — they just didn’t have to pay for them anymore.

First, internet music piracy crushed us. People didn’t buy physical music products anymore. Music consumers’ culture had changed. Myself and other songwriters lost our sales royalty income, money that, for most songwriters was what paid the bills. Thousands left the profession. Those who remained now had to depend on rare radio singles and broadcast airplay for any significant income.

Then streaming came along. My streaming royalty rates were tied to laws from 1909 written to address player piano rolls.

Millions of streams of my songs paid almost nothing. My “retirement” disappeared and even more of my songwriting friends and heroes began losing their deals and their homes.

I had to do something. The Nashville Songwriters Association has relentlessly marched the halls of Congress for many years asking for changes. Finally we see many of those changes in The Music Modernization Act. The bill is truly bi-partisan and endorsed by a historic coalition of virtually every stakeholder within and outside the music industry.

The bill would replace the 1909 royalty rate standard with a market-based “willing buyer/willing seller” royalty rate standard that will hopefully lead to higher royalties for songwriters.

Under the legislation, a new digital mechanical collective will oversee blanket streaming licensing and build an accurate, transparent song ownership database. The bill requires, for the first time, by law, that at least half of all unclaimed funds are distributed to songwriters based on activity.

The collective will represent all American songwriters equally and at no cost, since the digital streaming services have agreed to fund the operations. Streaming services will no longer be liable for copyright infringement as long as they adhere to best payment practices.

And the disastrous mass Notice of Intent program administered by the U.S. Copyright Office will be eliminated. Additionally, ASCAP and BMI rate court judges will now be randomly assigned for rate proceedings replacing the current system of those judges being appointed for life.

There are other important overdue changes for recording artists Congress should also consider such as The Classics Act. It would fix a glitch in current law and give the same federal copyright protections to songs recorded before 1972 as those recorded later. And The Amp Act would codify payments for the invaluable contributions of producers and engineers to the sound of America’s music.

These bills, led by the Music Modernization Act, start us down the road to a more robust music industry economy. As a journeyman songwriter, I’ve seen one of my song titles, “Every Mile A Memory,” tattooed on the wrist of an Iraq war veteran who had to leave his best friend behind. And after deployments separated them many times, I’ve seen a solder and his bride dance their first dance to my song “Carrying Your Love With Me.,” I know what American music means to the world. I know it has value. I ask Congress to move swiftly to adopt these important reforms. I don’t want to be among the last journeyman songwriters.

Steve Bogard is the president of Nashville Songwriters Association International.