The music industry’s songwriters get their much-needed moment in Washington

The music industry’s songwriters get their much-needed moment in Washington
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For the last decade, songwriters like myself have watched the music industry go through a massive technological change with the shift toward digital streaming services. With that shift, we’ve also watched our paychecks decrease dramatically as a result. We’ve had dreams of fixing the way our music is licensed in the digital age so we can continue to create it, but various attempts to fix unfair copyright laws and regulations in Washington have seemed up till now, at least to some, as nothing more than wishful thinking. 

That’s how it felt until last month, when the House of Representatives unanimously passed major legislation, called the Music Modernization Act (MMA) — a bill that will help bring our music laws into the 21st century. In the wake of that unprecedented 415-0 vote, the Senate now has the bill in hand, bringing us one step closer to turning this hope into reality.

Why is this effort so important? In the past, a songwriter could make a decent living when their songs were recorded on albums and CDs. But streaming services are now the most popular way to listen to music — which is great when it comes to discovering new sounds, new artists and taking your music with you everywhere you go. But due to decades-old regulations that never contemplated this shift in technology, it’s much harder for songwriters to earn fair compensation for their creations. While those of us who also record and perform music have been able to compensate somewhat by touring and selling merchandise, that’s not an option available to the many composers who rely solely on the craft of songwriting to put food on the table for their families. 

Fortunately, the MMA passed by the House takes meaningful steps toward leveling the playing field for songwriters. First, it normalizes the judicial process for payment disputes between performance rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI and streaming platforms, so that a judge is randomly assigned to each proceeding — just like it would be for any other case. Second, it allows those judges to consider all evidence when determining songwriter compensation — something they are, incredibly, currently barred from doing. Together, these two sensible but consequential changes will give songwriters a better shot at receiving a fair market value for their work. 

Another benefit of this effort is that there’s a piece for every constituency in the complex music landscape. For example, these reforms would further help songwriters and streaming companies by simplifying the process by which so-called mechanical royalties are paid. It would also fix a longstanding injustice by ensuring that older artists receive royalties when digital platforms play songs recorded before 1972. There’s even a provision to streamline how producers and sound engineers are compensated. 

This even-handed approach is part of the reason the music and technology groups were able to come together and work with policymakers to achieve this rare consensus in Washington. The unanimous agreement of Republicans and Democrats in the House stands in stark contrast to the animus and bickering we usually hear about in the nation’s capital. We must not waste this moment of unity. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to make a living doing what I love, and it’s critical that we ensure future generations can do so as well. In towns and cities across the country, there are young writers who are just starting to put pen to paper to write the soundtrack to the next generation. It’s their life experiences, their messages and their stories that will be our inspirations in years to come. They’re hopes and dreams for the opportunity to create music for a living should be protected by all of us, especially those of us who’ve been that fortunate in the past. It may well be that the only way to ensure these dreams can become a reality is to make sure these reforms are passed into law. 

Michael McDonald is a songwriter and musician.