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The Piper Must be Paid | Commentary

It was good to see that a bipartisan group of members of Congress came together to introduce a bill to ensure that artists are fairly compensated for their recordings made before February 1972. As one who has worked with some of America’s iconic stars, as well as today’s promising talents, and as a member of a music community coalition trying to fix a glaring inequity, I hope Congress acts promptly to help our legacy artists.

Music opened my life to an array of experiences. I remember New York’s Washington Square Park in the 1960s as a laboratory alive with musicians playing folk, old-time country, jazz and everything in between. The creativity in that one small space was vibrant and passionate. The artists there changed us, just as Sam Phillips, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison did from Memphis, Tenn., a decade earlier. A circle of talented innovators with the courage to explore new things — be they topics or techniques — reshaped our culture and the world.

Melodies, the accompanying lyrics and the way artists and musicians bring them together have the ability to break down barriers, cross borders, educate and inspire. Music is uniquely durable and, as a result, has for centuries been the medium through which knowledge and insights are passed from generation to generation.

Fans can still hear the work of America’s musical pioneers, thanks to online and mobile services. Through downloads and streams and services such as Pandora and Sirius XM Radio, these giants’ recordings continue to captivate and influence young musicians, singers, songwriters and producers.

Yet some of these same companies have made the decision to devalue the music of these artists for their own profit by not paying for it. In doing this, they devalue the substance of their own medium. For the last 20 years we’ve witnessed an assault on the arts by the technology community — especially when it comes to music.

This devaluation is troubling because music is not only the creation of people who make this art for us; it is how they earn a living. Music is how they feed their kids and provide for their futures.

I have been blessed with successes beyond anything I could have dreamed. But I am also acutely aware that for too many artists, the music business has become unstable and financially unrewarding. At some point record sales wither, or touring — an expensive and arduous enterprise to begin with — becomes too hard, and then a great many of our artists find themselves in a fix.

Several lawsuits have been filed over the last year on behalf of artists and copyright owners against Pandora or Sirius XM to rectify this disregard for what legacy artists created. It turns out that recordings made before 1972 are protected by state law and newer recordings are protected by federal law. It’s a distinction that matters to lawyers but not to those who make music for a living — or their fans. And why should it?

But digital music services such as Pandora and Sirius XM read the legal idiosyncrasy as a hook to withhold from artists and rights holders any payment for recordings made before 1972. It is quite obvious that without the music, there are no music services. And it shouldn’t take a lawsuit, or a bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last week, to make it clear that businesses that include pre-1972 recordings in the playlists they deliver to their customers should pay the creators who brought those recordings to life.

A band’s artistry is the culmination of years of work and decades of collective knowledge. It is wrong to laud the know-how behind a technology, or shower executives with stock options, but disregard the genius captured in a recording.

I hope all those who are part of the 21st century music marketplace will honor the fundamental rights of artists and rights holders so that services, creators and music fans can reap the benefits the Internet has to offer.

T Bone Burnett is a 13-time Grammy Award-winning musician, songwriter and soundtrack and record producer.

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