Technology has robbed American songwriters of their income – it’s time for the law to catch up
I am the songwriter Steve Bogard. You don’t know my name because I’m not the Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, Billy Joel songwriter type with gig and merchandise income. I’m the type to only perform my compositions occasionally on songwriter tours, performances and sometimes on a free trip somewhere. I am the unknown “journeyman” songwriter who has shown up for decades at my job writing songs for artists to record.
Thirty-five years ago, I moved to Nashville with my wife and two kids in a U-Haul truck with a Ferris wheel attached to the back. Without a job and with just enough money for a few months of expenses, I pursued the risky dream of writing songs for a living.
With the help of a few people I had met in the company, in less than a year, I was writing songs with “high caliber” songwriters whose names I had only read in the Billboard magazine. During this pre-Internet era, Vinyl, Cassette, CD, it was wise, but not really necessary for a songwriter like me to know all the details of the “Copyright Act” governing my royalties.
If you were talented and worked hard, you had a real chance of being successful enough to make a good living and raise your family. If you had recorded songs by great artists or written a classic, you might continue to get paid for many years, or consider selling those royalty rights for something like retirement at that time. I’m proud to have had the chance to climb some of these hills.
In the early 2000s, the songwriting profession changed, seemingly overnight. As technology exploded, one of my new songs was suddenly available – for free – on 1,100 websites a week before the album was even released.
Over the course of a few years, the bottom of my dream career dropped. Not because people didn’t want and like my songs – they just didn’t have to pay to buy them anymore.
First, the Internet music piracy has crushed us. People no longer bought physical music products. The culture of music consumers had changed. Myself and other songwriters lost our revenue from sales royalties, money that for most songwriters was what paid the bills. Thousands have left the profession. Those who remained now had to depend on rare radio singles and broadcast airwaves for any significant income.
Then streaming came. My streaming royalty rates were tied to the 1909 laws written to deal with players’ piano rolls.
Millions of streams of my songs paid next to nothing. My “retirement” was gone and even more of my songwriter and hero friends started losing their deals and homes.
I had something to do. The Nashville Songwriters Association has marched tirelessly through the halls of Congress for many years calling for change. Finally, we see a lot of these changes in the Music Modernization Act. The bill is truly bipartisan and endorsed by a historic coalition of virtually everyone in and outside the music industry.
The bill would replace the 1909 royalty rate standard with a market-based “buyer / willing seller” royalty rate standard that will hopefully result in higher royalties for songwriters.
Under the legislation, a new digital mechanics collective will oversee streaming licenses and create an accurate and transparent database on song ownership. The bill requires, for the first time, by law that at least half of all unclaimed funds be distributed to songwriters based on their activity.
The collective will represent all American songwriters equally and free of charge, as digital streaming services have agreed to fund the operations. Streaming services will no longer be liable for copyright infringement as long as they follow best payment practices.
And the disastrous mass notice of intent program administered by the US Copyright Office will be eliminated. Additionally, ASCAP and BMI pricing court judges will now be randomly assigned to pricing proceedings, replacing the current system of these judges appointed for life.
There are other significant overdue changes for performers that Congress should consider as well, such as The Classics Act. This would correct a problem in the current law and give the same federal copyright protections to songs recorded before 1972 as those recorded later. And The Amp Act would codify payments for the invaluable contributions of producers and engineers to the sound of American music.
These bills, led by the Music Modernization Act, set us on the path to a more robust music industry economy. As a songwriter, I saw one of my song titles, “Every Mile A Memory,” tattooed on the wrist of an Iraq war veteran who had to abandon his best friend. . And after deployments that separated them on several occasions, I saw a soldier and his fiancée dance their first dance to my song, “Carrying Your Love With Me.” I know what American music means to the world. I know it has value. I call on Congress to act quickly to pass these important reforms. I don’t want to be among the last songwriters.
Steve Bogard is the president of the Nashville Songwriters Association International.