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Cliffhanger: September Is Do-Or-Die Time For The Music Modernization Act

One of many memes deployed this summer to bolster support for the Music Modernization Act in Congress, this one from ASCAP.


This Fall promises too many political dramas to count in Washington, DC, but for songwriters and the music business at large, one cliffhanger will directly effect their livelihoods. The Music Modernization Act, an effort to overhaul the nation’s archaic licensing and payment systems, will make a do-or-die dash to becoming law in September and early October. The industry is virtually united in supporting it, but on a volatile Capitol Hill, there are no guarantees for this high stakes bill.

“I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say this is the most important piece of legislation in American copyright history, since sound was recorded,” says Bart Herbison, executive director of the Nashville Songwriters Association International and veteran of many music legislation battles. He and numerous other music business officials have escorted dozens of working songwriters to Capitol Hill over the years to get legislators up to speed on the complexities of the music business. He says elements of the MMA were first introduced as early as 2005.

NSAI's Bart Herbison (center) has been working on major music copyright reform for more than a decade. Shown here with songwriter Roger Cook and Tenn. Sen. Lamar Alexander.

“We were working on it before that, so this has been at minimum a thirteen year process. And we’ve got to get it done this Congress.”

Artists from every genre, Americana included, have engaged in the lobbying effort behind the MMA. Jim Lauderdale was one of numerous artists to visit Capitol Hill last Spring with a GRAMMY delegation. John Prine released a statement on Twitter this month, supporting a provision that equalizes treatment under copyright law for pre 1972 recordings: “When it comes to new forms of technology for listening to music, I believe that older artists and their families should be compensated at the same rate as younger artists, no matter the platform.”

Nashville songwriter Lee Thomas Miller, who's made numerous advocacy trips to Washington himself, posted a statement early this month that said in part, “I have watched the slow, painful compromises that have been put into this bill. No one is completely happy with it because EVERYONE has had to give in to reach a consensus.”

Indeed, the complex, multi-part package is the result of an unprecedented industry-wide negotiation among players with divergent interests - giant internet companies, record labels, publishers, radio broadcasters, digital streaming outlets like Spotify and more. The MMA is expected to boost streaming rates and eliminate institutional barriers to songwriters, producers and musicians getting paid for digital play.

That will be achieved in two broad ways. The legislation clarifies that streams involve a mechanical royalty, making it more like a sale, with clear rates. Meanwhile, a new Mechanical Licensing Collective - a long-sought centralized database of song ownership - will prevent digital music streamers from saying they can’t find those owners. The MMA will also allow free market standards influence the rate-setting system for streams, and that alone is expected to pump up what creators get paid for digital music.

“This doesn’t completely solve the problem but it’s the biggest tool we’ve had to address it since streaming began,” Herbison says.

The package passed the House unanimously in April, suggesting smooth sailing ahead. It cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee in late June without dissent. Then it hit some snags, as performing rights organization SEASAC and its corporate sibling the Harry Fox Agency raised objections.

Herbison characterized that as a “fight in the family” that got worked out (amid a barrage of anti-SESAC sentiment on social media). Now the struggle is down to a very few individual senators with specific home state constituent concerns. “But look, we’ve done hundreds of those," Herbison said. "This has been a multi, multi year process. The most important thing to know is that we’re working all together in unison to try to pass this bill and we don’t have a lot of time to do it.”

The Senate reconvenes Sept. 4. Herbison says he’ll have a feeling for whether it’s heading for a historic victory or crash by mid September.


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