Commentary: All music creators should be paid for their work

All great music comes from … other music.

It’s our greatest teacher, our loftiest inspiration, and at times our cruelest measuring stick. Every song has its roots. That’s true for all songwriters and performers, and even more so for those of us from musical families, where the fabric of our childhood is so deeply interwoven with song.

This gives older music and artists a double value – their own inherent musical greatness and then the additional, accumulating worth of all the new songs and artists they inspire. When we sit down with fountainhead acts like Kris Kristofferson or Martha Reeves, we’re in the presence of royalty.

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But amazingly, instead of honoring these legends, some digital radio companies are ripping them off. Talk about losing the thread – it’s supposed to be “respect” your elders, not ravage them.

The issue is a moral one. But like many vital matters, it plays out as a question of the law.

Under federal copyright, when digital radio plays music, it must pay a small royalty to the artist and copyright owner who recorded it. Those pennies aren’t enough, but they help. That money contributes to working musicians who are pursuing their dreams, it funds recordings, buys instruments and supports new projects and ideas, and ensures older musicians can meet their basic needs.

But for music performances recorded before Feb. 15, 1972, the law is murkier. Federal copyright protections don’t go back that far, and state laws are all over the map.

This older music still has tons of value – some services have whole stations dedicated to the music of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, and 70s — and it includes some of the most important tracks ever laid down. But the law governing it is a mess. Digital radio wants and needs this music. What should they do?

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An honorable company might try and come up with a rough way to value the music. It might simply assume older songs are worth at least as much as newer, less time-tested ones and pay the going rate. On the other hand, it might take the position that the royalties should be somewhat lower due to the confusion and legal uncertainty involved.

What it cannot ethically do, however, is use these great recordings to earn millions and then share nothing with the artists and their families and other copyright owners who created them. Yet, that’s exactly what some digital radio services are doing: cashing in on a loophole they know is wrong and daring someone to do something about it.

Fortunately, Congress seems to be gearing up to do just that. A new bill called the CLASSICS Act aims to ensure that all music creators are paid for their work regardless of when it was recorded. The bill just unanimously passed the House of Representatives as part of the broader Music Modernization Act (MMA) and now goes to the other side of the Capitol where both of Texas’ Senators will play a key role evaluating the bill as members of the Judiciary Committee. While the House-passed version of the songwriter-focused MMA is strong, there are critical improvements pending in the Senate that will make this aspect of the legislation even more transparent and fair and ensure it better serves independent songwriters.

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I am proud to support the overall package of MMA reforms and urge Texas’ Senators to support key improvements.

Ensuring payment for airplay of pre-1972 music is a question of basic fairness and economic justice – bringing an end to a vast windfall these services did nothing to deserve and making sure royalties get to the artists who earned them.

For many older greats, the CLASSICS Act is also a lifeline: the difference between touring until they simply can’t go on and being able to get off the road with dignity and basic economic security.

And finally, it’s a question of respect — and not just Aretha’s song for which she surely deserves to be paid — respect for our musical roots and the long lines of influence and inspiration that flows back through time and melody to the greats who have inspired us all.

Congress has a chance to right an obvious wrong, to respect our musical forbearers, and to make the digital music economy more logical and fair.

I urge the Senate to pass the improved MMA including the CLASSICS Act now.

Cash is a Grammy Award-winning singer and songwriter and is the vice president at large of the Content Creators Coalition, the artist-run, advocacy organization for musicians.

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