Opinion » Viewpoint

Pay the Band

Why we should be supporting proposed national music initiatives in Congress.

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Several years ago, a very famous Memphis guitar player got sick. He was one of my entertainment-law clients. I drove him to Wiles-Smith Drug Store and purchased his meds so he could go back to playing music. He eventually succumbed to his illness.

I am blessed to have been able to help, but it was another rude awakening as to how archaic and broken the laws are — and the payment system is — with regard to those who create music.

I know you have seen the public discourse about how the music business has changed. If you have not, please read Stephen Witt's new book, How Music Got Free. It chronicles the devastating financial effects of technology on those who make the music: the young German geek engineers who developed the MP3 format, the theft of major-label CDs from factories, industrial pirates, Napster and like services, iPod and iTunes, streaming services, and recent articles by Roseanne Cash and others about the pennies now paid to artists. The story is no different than those written in The New York Times about families struggling to make it from minimum-wage fast food jobs.

But this is not just a technology issue.

I am not here at my mature age to fight technology or to lecture about the good old days, when we shopped for vinyl and read liner notes and wore down a Joni Mitchell album with too many plays. It is a sweet story, but it does no good. I have more than a thousand CDs ready to play on my Wednesday morning WEVL radio show. I understand how frustrating obsolescence can be.

Fairly recently, Apple announced its new streaming service. For a modest monthly fee, a user may be able to have unlimited use of nearly all recorded music. The creator of a CD used to receive perhaps a dollar or two per unit. That same creator may now receive a nickel. That should give you an idea as to why those of us who create, play, or love music are so concerned about how this will affect the artists we love.

I know, I know, there is more opportunity than ever for artists to get their music out. And I know that in these times artists should play live and tour and not expect royalty income. And that is the purest form of their art. That is a nice idea when you are in your 20s and health care and sharing a hotel and eating cheap junk food are not issues.

Here is my point, and this especially applies to those who believe in a living wage, which is crucial in a marginal economic city like Memphis. Please do all you can to support the national "Fair Play, Fair Pay" initiative which Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), (ranking member of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet) and Congressman Marsha Blackburn (vice chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee) have put forth in partnership with various national and local music organizations, some of which are here in Memphis.

There are four parts to the initiative, which includes a comprehensive bill that gives music creators pay parity. First, legislation would establish a process for setting fair-market royalty rates, not some pathetic low royalty rate that is decades old.

Second, the legislation would create a performance right for artists on terrestrial radio in the U.S., so that artists can get paid when their performances are on the radio. This is how it's done in much of the rest of the world.

Third, this legislation would close a 1972 loophole and would guarantee that veteran performers receive royalties.

Fourth, the legislation would codify royalty payments to producers — the people behind the songs. If we can make all this happen, I am sure we will be paid back many times over in good music that's been created by musicians who deserve to make a living.

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