What Songwriters Need From Congress

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Tuning into cable news or browsing social media these days, it is painfully clear that a lot of people believe we are living in a hopelessly divided world. They see insurmountable barriers between us – politics, race, religion, wealth, nationality, who you choose to love.

As a music creator, I view the world a little differently. I know first-hand that music has the power to bring people together. Songwriters build bridges. In fact, we even put them in the middle of our songs. And no matter who we are or where we come from, music connects us to our shared experience and what it means to be human.

Sadly, the value of music is diminishing in today’s marketplace, due to outdated and overreaching federal regulations that govern U.S. songwriters. While technology has advanced, the laws that govern the way we license our creative work have not. As a result, it currently it takes one million streams of a song on average across the top music streaming services for a songwriter to earn about $170.

Keep in mind, no one is buying CDs or even downloads anymore. Everyone is streaming. But at this rate, even a chart-topping hit will barely earn the songwriter enough to pay the rent. Imagine what it’s like for professional songwriters who are just starting out.

In fact, songwriters are some of the most heavily-regulated small business owners in the country. Three-fourths of the income streams we rely upon to feed our families are subject to federal oversight. All too often, this prevents songwriters from obtaining fair market rates for the use of our work and stunts competition in the modern music marketplace.

In particular, the Department of Justice consent decrees that govern the way ASCAP and BMI, the two largest performance rights organizations in the US, operate need an update. At 76 years old, these are two of the oldest antitrust consent decrees on the books, making them out of step with how people consume music today. Can you imagine if we were still using laws written in the 1940s to govern things like transportation, energy or health care?

As someone who’s been around nearly as long – but not quite! – I’d humbly like to offer a suggestion to the new Administration and Congress: it’s time for the federal government to get out of the business of regulating songwriters.

Just like any other landowner, homeowner or American entrepreneur, songwriters deserve the freedom to obtain fair rates for the work we create and own.

So, what can be done to protect the future of the people who create great American music? It’s pretty simple to start. We need the government to periodically review federal music licensing regulations, like the ASCAP and BMI consent decrees, to ensure they encourage, rather than hinder, more vigorous competition in the marketplace. And we need a faster, less expensive process for resolving rate disputes between songwriters and the businesses that want to use their music—a change, which on its own could save valuable government resources and taxpayer dollars that are currently wasted in federal rate courts.

These reforms aren’t complicated. They just aim to level the playing field for American songwriters that are currently being punished by an outdated and overreaching regulatory system. Despite our differences, reforming the music licensing system should be an issue that unites us. It’s good for our economy, and good for everyone who loves music.

Paul Williams is an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe-winning Hall of Fame songwriter and the president and chairman of the board of The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers