It's Time for Washington to Stand with Songwriters | Commentary

In 1914, a small, but visionary group of America’s leading songwriters and composers — among them, musical greats like Irving Berlin and John Philip Sousa — realized they could protect their rights as music creators more effectively through collective licensing, rather than going it alone. So they came together to form the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, or ASCAP for short.

Today, some 500,000 composers, music publishers and songwriters, like me, trust ASCAP to do the things most of us could not do on our own — negotiate licenses, monitor public performances, distribute royalties and advocate on our behalf. ASCAP is the instrument that helps us make a living.

As we celebrate ASCAP’s 100th anniversary and look to the future, we recognize the rules and regulations that govern music licensing haven’t kept pace with the innovation that is transforming how people listen to music. And we’re committed to finding a solution.

That’s why ASCAP members will be coming to Washington this week. I’ll be joined by fellow award-winning songwriters Randy Newman, Carly Simon, Josh Kear, Valerie Simpson, Jimmy Webb, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Jon Batiste and Narada Michael Walden, among others, as we seek to help policymakers understand why we must modernize our music licensing system.

The root of the challenge lies in the fact that the two organizations that represent most of the nation’s songwriters, ASCAP and BMI, are forced to operate within a regulatory structure governed by federal consent decrees created in 1941.

The last time these regulations were updated was in 2001, before the invention of the iPod.

Under this system, if ASCAP or BMI cannot agree with a licensee on the price of a license, then a federal “rate court” judge, rather than the free market, determines the amount we will be paid for our music from that licensee.

As a result of these outdated laws, record labels and recording artists routinely earn 12 to 14 times more than songwriters for the exact same stream of a song. And big music companies like Pandora rake in millions in revenue, while many music creators struggle to pay the bills.

In an effort to correct the imbalance within the current system, ASCAP has announced a new initiative, the “Music Advocacy Project” or MAP, for short. It centers around five guiding principles for music licensing reform:

Simplification: The licensing process must be simplified and reflect the way people listen to music today. A lot has changed in the last decade, and the rules should reflect that.

Market rates: Let the free market determine the value of music copyrights, the same way it works in other entertainment sectors.

Consumer choice: Let music listeners access a wide variety of music on a variety of platforms for a fair price, while compensating songwriters for the value of their work.

Creator control: Include the songwriters and composers themselves in the discussion and effort to reform.

Access: Collective licensing is the best way to facilitate the transaction between music listeners and creators.

Fortunately, many in Washington have come to recognize that updating our music licensing system is in the best interest of everyone — writers, publishers, licensees and, most importantly, music listeners.

We’ve been encouraged by recent signs of progress, including introduction of the bipartisan Songwriter Equity Act by Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., and the announcement of a U.S. Copyright Office study to review the consent decrees that govern our business. And the House Judiciary Committee will soon hold a series of hearings on music licensing, with a view toward understanding what is working and what needs a fresh look.

As the chorus calling for reform grows louder, ASCAP will be on the front lines in Washington fighting on behalf of music creators. Above all, we want to keep the music playing. But we need Washington’s help to fix these problems.

Working together with others throughout the music industry, we can design a long-term solution that better serves music lovers everywhere and allows songwriters and composers to thrive alongside businesses that prosper by offering our music to the public.

It isn’t just critical for songwriters; it’s vital to the future of music.

Paul Williams is an Oscar, Grammy- and Golden Globe-winning Hall of Fame songwriter and President and Chairman of the Board of ASCAP. His most recent Grammy was as a songwriter and featured artist on Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning album Random Access Memories.