Songwriters ‘More Heavily Regulated Than Pharmaceutical Companies’ and Other Takeaways From ASCAP Expo

Courtesy of Getty for ASCAP

Efforts to compel the United States Congress to reform the country’s “antiquated” music copyright laws were the burning issues at the 2017 edition of the ASCAP Expo, as the performing rights organization’s leadership attempted to advance causes designed to help its members earn a decent living.

ASCAP President Paul Williams noted that while the group collected a record $1.059 billion in 2016 on behalf of its songwriter, composer, and music publisher members, that increase of slightly more than 6% is inadequate when measured against the number of performances, which nearly doubled, to 1 trillion. “That disparity is due to our nation’s outdated music regulations,” Williams said.

The point was brought into vivid relief by songwriter Priscilla Renea, who has written for Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, and Miranda Lambert. Renea pointed out that the writers’ royalty for a million streams, across all platforms, “is only about $170. So if it takes 15 people to make a song, which sometimes it can, how are we expected to be able to sustain a career?”

Added Williams: “Talk about feeling the pinch. We’re bathing with lobsters!”

Here are five of the biggest takeaways from the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo, which drew roughly 3,000 attendees to the Loews Hollywood Hotel in Los Angeles last weekend.

1. Although musicians actively supported Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, Donald Trump has emerged the great white hope of copyright activists in the music world. The views expressed by Karen Bass (D-Calif.) at a regulatory session were echoed by many at the meet: while it’s too early for sure, the fact that Trump’s regulatory approach is the diametric opposite to that of the prior administration was, according to Bass, “a boon” for songwriters. “We’ve all heard about the executive order that says for every new regulation two old regulations should be disposed of. That’s a good starting place to re-look our consent decrees, which are among the oldest rules on the record, and prime candidates for review.” In fact, they’re 76 years old. Doug Collins (R-Ga.) also sat on the panel with Bass.

2. Modernizing the system “is going to take friends,” according to Williams, who noted that for the past three years, ASCAP and its chief competitor, BMI, have been working together to urge the Department of Justice to update copyright laws — an effort that has yet to produce change, though the industry is watching with great interest as Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Justice Department’s Antitrust Division, Makan Delrahim, moves to confirmation.

3. Among the legislative solutions on the table, the Copyright Selection and Accountability Act is earmarked as favorable to the music community. The bill, which proposes the U.S. Copyright Office become an independent agency, led by a presidential appointee, would give copyright parity with the other two intellectual property rights: trademark and patent, something the creative community-weighted copyright sector lacks. “Copyright should not be regulated [by Congress],” stressed attorney Dina LaPolt, moderating the panel “Getting Credit Where Credit Is Due.” “It’s your property and you should be able to negotiate in a free market without the government saying what you should be paid. When there is a compulsory license, it means you are compulsed to say ‘yes.’ These are horrible laws. In the U.S., songwriters are more heavily regulated than pharmaceutical companies. That is f—ing sad!”

4. Metadata may not sound sexy, but songwriters who like money will make a point of becoming intimate with the various ways to tag credits to tunes using it. The Swedish-based Auddly, a free service that allows songwriters to sign-up and input their credit data for automated music meta tagging, was something of a sensation at the meet. AdRev CEO Noah Becker put it in perspective, noting the key to generating royalties from streaming outlets. “Today, you have a line item worth a tenth of a penny and you have 10 million rows of those, whereas in the old guard music industry, you’d sell a CD with a 1,700% margin and you could manage it all in a Word doc.” Key to metadata success is keeping the tags to-the-letter consistent across all credits and platforms.

5. In the world of accumulating pennies rather than collecting dollars, Ben Patterson, CEO of digital distribution service DashGo.com, urged attendees to “think like a whale, not like a shark,” by opening wide and catching up tonnage of krill. “It’s micro-revenue, but it does add up,” Becker said. “At AdRev, we manage rights for people you’ve never heard of who earn six-figure incomes from music. Myself, I’m not very active any more as a songwriter, but I have about 1,000 cuts of 15-30-second edits that generates $10-15,000 per year in passive income, and it just comes in.”

(Pictured: ASCAP president Paul Williams, Representative Doug Collins (R-Ga.), Representative Karen Bass (D-Calif.), songwriter Priscilla Renea, ASCAP general counsel Clara Kim.)