The World Has Changed, It’s Time Our Music Licensing System Did Too | Commentary

Posted July 10, 2014 at 10:07am

Digital media industry lobbyist Daniel Horowitz’s recent opinion piece, “Congress Should Consider Reality Over Rhetoric in Copyright Reform,” (Roll Call, July 2) dismisses the arguments made by “star-studded messengers.” So perhaps he’ll permit someone who toils behind the scenes of the music industry to weigh in? You see, most people won’t recognize my name. But they are familiar with my music, which includes scores for television shows such as Glee and American Horror Story.

As a long-time American Society for Composers, Authors and Publishers member, I feel compelled to correct some of the gross inaccuracies in Mr. Horowitz’s piece.

First, the assertion that “PRO’s won’t disclose exactly which musical compositions they each control” is patently false. ASCAP is committed to transparency toward its members and customers. In fact, the most visited page on ASCAP’s website is the searchable ACE database, which includes detailed information about the writers and publishers of all nine million musical works in ASCAP’s repertory.

Of course, music is often licensed through multiple competing PROs. That’s why ASCAP, Broadcast Music, Inc. and the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) launched the new “MusicMark” collaboration, which will provide music users with an even more complete picture of the music represented by all three societies.

Second, Mr. Horowitz fails to mention the fact that it takes one million streams on Pandora for a songwriter to earn just $90 in performance royalties. Meanwhile, labels and recording artists often earn 12 to 14 times as much for the exact same stream.

This brings me to the one point Mr. Horowitz actually gets right — “rates in the music industry aren’t actually set by the ‘market.’ ” A free and fair market for music licensing doesn’t exist in this country. Instead, we operate within a federal regulatory structure that was created in 1941, and hasn’t been updated since before the iPod hit stores.

The decades-old consent decree that governs how ASCAP does business actually inhibits royalty rates from changing with the times. They give a rate court judge the power to value our music, a task that should be left to creators and consumers in the free market. As the music landscape changes, so too should our ability to place value on the music we create.

“Responsible, balanced reform,” which Mr. Horowitz claims to support, would put the rights of music creators and listeners ahead of — or at least on par with — those of the publicly-traded media corporations that control music distribution today. It would include updates to the consent decree, and passage of the Songwriter Equity Act.

Unfortunately, the interests Mr. Horowitz represented in his work at the Digital Media Association seem committed to preserving the status quo, in which the rates paid to songwriters and composers hardly reflect the true value of their work.

The longer we wait to update our music licensing system, the higher the price America’s songwriters and composers will be forced to pay for that delay.

James S. Levine is a composer and ASCAP member from Los Angeles, Calif.