Songwriters Push for Royalty Reform in Era of Trump Deregulation

Paul Williams
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Songwriters are worried about their future, but see their royalties stuck in a system of the past.

That’s the message that a number of musicians and ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) president and chairman Paul Williams have been taking to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and Wednesday as they push for an array of changes to the process by which songwriters, composers, and music publishers are paid royalties in the streaming era.

Although many in the music business lined up to oppose Donald Trump in the general election, from a business standpoint, there is some hope that a call for music licensing reforms will resonate in a deregulated environment.

“I think there is a leaning away from government regulation, and as a songwriter, as a small business owner, I am one of the most heavily regulated businesses that you can name,” Williams said in an interview. Indeed, at the recent ASCAP “I Write Music” Expo in Los Angeles, one music attorney declared that “songwriters are more heavily regulated than pharmaceutical companies.”

In D.C. on Tuesday evening, Williams and performers such as Peter Frampton, Gordon Kennedy, Rob Thomas, Eric Bazilian, Rob Hyman, Ledisi, and Camille Thurman were scheduled for an event at the Library of Congress. The ASCAP Foundation donated a collection of manuscripts, lyric sheets and photos and letters to the library.

On Wednesday, Williams and other songwriters plan to lobby on Capitol Hill for what is being billed as “Stand with Songwriters” Advocacy Day.

On top of the agenda: starting periodic reviews of a 76-year-old antitrust consent decree in which ASCAP, along with another performance rights organization (PRO), BMI, are governed. Last year, after calls to modify the consent decree, the Department of Justice decided to leave it intact.

Even more to the dismay of PROs, the Justice Department also mandated a regime of 100% licensing. What that meant is that in the case of a song that has joint ownership, either organization could only represent the work if they had clearance from all of those who had interests. Under fractional licensing, they can grant rights to that part of the work they represent.

A federal judge rejected the Justice Department’s conclusion, and the case’s appeal has been delayed as the Trump-era DOJ decides what it wants to do.

At the same 2017 edition of the ASCAP Expo, Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) noted that the new administration may be more willing to look at modifications to the consent decree. “We’ve all heard about the executive order that says for every new regulation two old regulations should be disposed of,” she said at the event. “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.”

Williams and ASCAP members also want changes to the rate court system, which sets royalty rate payments and settles disputes.

The problem, Williams says, is that the licensing regulations have failed to keep pace with the way that listeners consume music, to the detriment of songwriters. Williams says that it takes one million streams of a song on major streaming services for a songwriter to earn an average of about $170.

In an interview, Thomas said that he received $619 for 24 million streams of “Smooth” on Pandora.

“It is indicative of a bigger problem,” Thomas said. “If I didn’t have another revenue stream, that is what I would be making for a living.” He pointed to the difficulties of new songwriters who depend on digital streaming for their works to be discovered.

As he meets with lawmakers, he said that he wants to emphasize that the songwriting profession is made up of many individuals with small businesses.

“It is just a matter of trying to look at this as any other small business,” he said.

ASCAP has found a number of champions on Capitol Hill, including Rep, Doug Collins (R-Ga.), who introduced legislation in the last Congress designed to boost the licensing rates that courts set for digital music play. It didn’t move in Congress, and streaming services like Pandora have waged lobbying campaigns against it, arguing that higher royalty payments would jeopardize their business models.

Despite the polarized politics in Washington — and in the country in general — Williams says that the legislation has enjoyed bipartisan support. ASCAP also is trying to bolster its case with a survey showing public support for updating regulations.

“I won’t get into personal politics,” Williams said, other than to say that he occasionally looks at what is happening in Washington and is “sometimes confused.”

“What I am not confused about is when businesses struggle, when recording studios are closing up and songwriters are leaving Nashville,” he said.

He added that when it came to ASCAP’s concerns, he doesn’t know how the Trump administration will respond, but, “I have high hopes.”