Editorial: How Bob Goodlatte just saved the music industry
If you like to listen to music digitally through, say, Pandora or Spotify, you may soon find a wider range of artists available through your favorite streaming service. For this, you have an unlikely person to thank: U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Roanoke County.
In his capacity as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Goodlatte most often makes the news in conjunction with the big, polarizing questions of the day — immigration, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the politicization of the Federal Bureau of Investigations. What’s gone largely unrecognized, though, is that on another issue, Goodlatte has helped craft a remarkable agreement among a set of competing interest groups that many never thought would agree on anything.
The issue: How musicians and music producers get paid in the digital era.
That may not seem to have the import of, say, whatever President Trump tweeted today — but is a big deal if you like to listen to music.
First, we must begin with a concept that some still have trouble grasping: A song is property — intangible, to be sure, but property nonetheless. That’s how intellectual property works — and songwriters, musicians, producers, sound engineers get paid for the creation of that property in the form of royalties.
If you buy a physical copy of that song for your own personal enjoyment — a compact disc, for instance — there’s a recognized way for everybody in the production chain to get paid. But what happens when somebody starts playing that recording for the public and charging money for it? That’s where things get murky.
Songs have been regulated under a section of the Copyright Act that was passed in 1909 — before there even was a recording industry. As Goodlatte described it to Congress: “Music is no longer written on piano rolls and our laws shouldn’t be based on that technology any longer either.”
Here’s one way to illustrate part of the problem: Due to a quirk in the existing law, musicians who produced songs before 1972 don’t get paid when those songs are played on streaming services. Those streaming services have to pay somebody for the right to play those songs. So who gets the money? For songs produced since 1972, the record company gets half; the “featured musician” gets 45 percent and “non-featured musicians” get 5 percent. For songs produced before 1972, the record company gets paid — but nobody else. You might imagine that all those “legacy musicians” aren’t too happy about that.
There’s also a tangle of other problems, too: Sometimes it’s not always clear who owns the rights to a song. Copyrights can be sold just like anything else; that’s how Michael Jackson once wound up as the owner of the rights to many of the Beatles songs. And then there are music publishers who may hold the right to market a particular song on behalf of the copyright holder.
That confusion over who owns what — and who is owed what — has often led to lawsuits. Big ones, too. Earlier this year, one music licensing company filed a $1.6 billion lawsuit against Spotify, alleging the service had played songs by its clients (which include the Doors, Tom Petty and Neil Young) without paying for the right to do so. Enter Bob Goodlatte. You might wonder why a congressman from Virginia is mixed up in the music business. Umm, his constituents like to listen to music too, right? (Goodlatte himself likes listening to Broadway showtunes and classic performers such as Kenny Rogers and John Denver.) More seriously, Goodlatte’s involvement in the music issue springs from his long-standing interest in intellectual property issues, and his broader work at trying to update the nation’s copyright laws for the digital age.
Three years ago, the House Judiciary Committee held a series of hearings across the country — the locations in Nashville, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and New York were hardly accidental. At the beginning, everyone involved had a different opinion for how the system should work. Musicians and record companies have always had an uneasy relationship, but now there are technology companies that are fundamentally changing the marketplace to the discomfort of both. “All the time I’ve been in Congress, they’ve fought with each other,” Goodlatte says. But then something remarkable happened. “After hearing each other, they realized each side had legitimate complaints.”
Musicians and record companies want to get paid; streaming services wanted to avoid being sued. If you’re a music fan, you just want to hear the song. If you want to think a bit deeper, you might also want a system where new technologies can be developed without fear of being sued out of existence — and musicians can make enough money that they can keep making music you want to hear. Out of all this emerged the Music Modernization Act that, in broad terms, simplifies how streaming services can get access to music— and provides a way for those pre-1972 musicians to get paid. Just about everybody in the music industry is behind it — although musicians seem happier about it than the streaming services. SiriusXM Satellite Radio, for instance, isn’t very happy because it may have to pay more for the songs it plays. The bill passed the House without a single dissenting vote on April 25 and now heads to the Senate, where prospects for passage seem good. Meanwhile, Goodlatte is getting rave reviews for being able to broker an unprecedented agreement among such disparate interest groups. (Among those who lobbied Goodlatte personally were Slash of Guns’n’Roses, Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, Smokey Robinson and Dionne Warwick). Variety magazine praised Goodlatte for “demonstrating a depth of knowledge that only a small percentage of working members of the music community share.”
Groups representing musicians and sound engineers are especially singing his praises because, in their view, he stood up to the corporate giants to force them to share the wealth — not the usual way that Republicans are portrayed. Goodlatte takes a more traditional free market view: He believes this bill will clear away lots of legal obstacles to innovation — and create a more competitive marketplace that will benefit the consumer. So the next time you hear that one-hit wonder from your childhood come on internet radio, think back to warm memories of growing up. But save a thought for how the people involved in making that music will now get paid for their work, and who made that happen.