Guest editorial by Jennifer Purdon Turnbow
On any given day, if you wander into my NSAI office at the Music Mill, you’re likely to find a dry plant, a desk teeming with paperwork, the little red light on my phone blinking and me hunched over my laptop sending dozens of emails. As Sr. Director of Operations, my duty is to oversee all the services we provide. However, I often find myself out from behind that desk tending to the foundation the organization was built on— advocacy for songwriters.
The future of music licensing and the role of the songwriter are a hot topic right now. Lots of things are happening at once. For example, just recently the U.S. Copyright Office held a roundtable discussion in Nashville; the Department of Justice called for a review of the Consent Decrees that govern ASCAP and BMI; and the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee held its first of two hearings on music licensing reform.
I travelled to Washington, D.C. for the June 10 House Judiciary Committee hearing on music licensing reform. NSAI President, Lee Thomas Miller was asked to testify before a subcommittee and describe the challenges songwriters face in the current licensing structure; and he was BRILLIANT. You can actually watch a playback of the hearing here. A large portion of his testimony focused on the Songwriter Equity Act which could increase the rates a songwriter is paid on both mechanical and performance royalties. The bill was introduced a couple of months ago by Rep. Doug Collins, Hakeem Jeffries, and Marsha Blackburn and is an important step forward in revaluing copyrights. Here’s an explanation of the bill’s specifics…
The bill essentially has two parts…
This speaks to the mechanical royalty a songwriter receives when a recorded reproduction of his/her song is sold to a consumer (i.e. a CD, an iTunes download, etc.). A songwriter’s payment for that sale is determined by a Copyright Royalty Board made up of 3 judges that meets every 5 years to determine rates. The federal government procedures governing these rates date back to 1909 when player piano rolls were first being monetized. When all this started in 1909, the rate was set at 2 cents. Today, 105 years later, that same rate has only increased to 9.1 cents, regardless of the sale price of the song. Crazy, right? The way the law is currently written, the Copyright Royalty Board judges are instructed to set our rate based on archaic, creator-unfriendly criteria that does not take marketplace factors into account. The Songwriter Equity Act seeks to remedy that. The solution is to instruct the judges to instead set rates based on marketplace factors or what the likely outcome would be if songwriters were allowed to negotiate under a willing-buyer, willing-seller standard.
This part of the bill speaks to the performance royalties songwriters receive and includes online streaming services (i.e. Pandora, Spotify, etc.). Performance royalties are set by two federal judges in the Southern District of New York, one for ASCAP and one for BMI, who are currently not allowed to consider evidence that we believe is vitally important to setting fair rates. Artists and record labels also receive a performance royalty on digital streams, but unlike songwriters, label performance rates are set by the aforementioned Copyright Royalty Board and are much higher than songwriter rates for the exact same transmission. This bill would allow the federal “rate court” judges to consider the outcomes of these Copyright Royalty Board proceedings when setting our rates which would hopefully diminish the disparity and more equitably compensate songwriters.
Songwriters need a raise. In the current digital music market, it is becoming difficult for even the most successful songwriters to make a living. Passage of the “Songwriter Equity Act” would be a giant step toward rectifying these 100-year old inequities. Ultimately, we hope that Congress will also consider eliminating the compulsory license, which would mean total free market negotiations for songwriters, and either eliminate or dramatically altering the Consent Decrees, which would result in ASCAP and BMI having more marketplace flexibility.
Technology is not slowing down and the music licensing structure must be modernized to keep pace. The future of the profession of songwriting is at stake and NSAI is the songwriter’s advocate. I am honored and humbled to get to represent the songwriting community.
Jennifer Purdon Turnbow is Senior Director of Operations for the Nashville Songwriters Association International and the Festival Director for the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival. She also serves as financial officer for the Bluebird Café. As Senior Director of Operations, she is responsible for oversight on all aspects of the organization’s mission and is a legislative advocate for songwriters.