A look at the music modernization act, and if it will actually change anything.
Issues surrounding copyright and royalty fees have at least one thing in common with virtually everything else that existed before the 21st century: things got a lot more complicated thanks to the Internet. Before the advent of things like streaming services and Youtube, royalties were pretty much paid in two categories. Mechanical royalties were paid for the reproduction of music, and performance royalties were paid for, well, performances. Nowadays, these categories have blended together in many ways. Artists whose music is available on Spotify or Apple Music have a much harder time seeing exactly how their royalty fees are distributed and where they end up.
Seeing as more and more people are choosing to consume music via download platforms or streaming, it seems only fair that the legislation regulating things like copyright and royalties should (at least try) to catch up. This is where the Music Modernization Act comes in (kind of).
Dear Members of the United States Congress:
Songwriters are egregiously underpaid due to the laws governing the music industry not keping pace with technology. The Music Modernization Act of 2017 will change that. This bill is the most significant update to music copyright law in over a generation, and represents an unprecedented agreement between the music and technology industries. We, as the songwriters most affected by 100-year-old policies that reduce our royalties, encourage Congress to pass this legislation as soon as possible.
The Music Modernization Act is a bipartisan effort that will greatly improve the way mechanical and performance royalties are calculated. Today, digital services like Spotify, Apple, Pandora, Amazon and Google often do not know who to pay and money is lost to lack of information and inefficiency.
This is the cover letter of a petition posted to ASCAP’s website, looking to gather support, and eventually pass the Music Modernization Act (MMA) in Congress. According to the letter, the Music Modernization Act (which was proposed alongside other acts, as part of the Music Bus bill) appears to be something of a songwriter’s dream.
The MMA – introduced in December of 2017 – would revamp the process for the payment of mechanical royalties to account for more modern distribution methods like streaming. It would establish a new board (made up of publishers and songwriters) to oversee the implementation of the bill, and would allow royalty payments to be adjusted based on market value (yay, capitalism!).
There are a wide range of organizations that have pledged their support for the MMA – from publishers of church music (the CMPA) to the likes of DiMA (which represents Apple, Spotify, and Amazon to name a few) – it would seem that this bill is a long overdue update to the music industry with a little something for everyone. Even in its early stages, the MMA has done the impossible. In other words, it has garnered bipartisan support in Congress, and brought tech industry giants and music industry giants to a point of agreement.
As the cliché goes: when anything seems too good to be true, it’s usually because it is. Don’t get me wrong, the overall concept of the bill is definitely a step in the right direction. Songwriters deserve a way to be compensated in stride with modern technology, and the update to copyright laws and payments are a welcome change in a rapidly changing distribution landscape.
However, there are some problematic aspects of the MMA that aren’t receiving as much attention as they probably should be; some of the most problematic aspects were highlighted by the Council for Music Creators here. The ability of the bill to gain the support of such large entities in both tech and music is telling of a bill that (yep, you guessed it…) benefits the larger entities. While the Act would revamp the system for copyrights and royalties, it would do so in a way that provides a kind of giant reset button for copyright or royalties issues that existed before the bill was introduced. Case in point, Rolling Stone reported that the $1.6 billion lawsuit brought against Spotify by Wixen Music Publishing was purposely filed on December 29, 2017. This is because if the Music Modernization Act passes, it will essentially nullify claims not reported by January 1, 2018.
Along with the retroactive hall pass this would grant to companies like Spotify, the MMA also redistributes unclaimed royalties in proportion to market share. In English, this means that misplaced money, which might actually belong to smaller songwriters or publishers, will go straight to (yep, these guys again…) the larger entities. Ah, the sweet stench of capitalism.
While this doesn’t sound great, don’t despair too heavily (yet). Overall, the bones of the Music Modernization Act are good. It is still a young bill, and there is the possibility for amendment, and the addition of measures that would be more beneficial for smaller, independent publishers and songwriters as well. Congress (unlike me) is still on Recess until April 9th. In this time, (and the abundance of time even after April 9th… because Congress) organizations have the ability to more closely examine how the bill will affect them, and voice concerns accordingly.
If it is done right, this much needed update will ultimately benefit songwriters and publishers across the board. Conversely, if not everyone does their research and the bill passes as is (on hype alone), we’ll be in for another episode of “The Little Fish Gets Screwed By the Big Fish in Corporate America: Music Streaming Edition.” In an effort to prevent this from happening, I will borrow from the black hole of my middle school math teacher-isms, and urge music organizations large and small: do your homework.
The next time you hear your favorite song, think of the struggling small business owner who wrote it; and remember that you can do something to help by supporting the Music Modernization Act.