Op-Ed: SoundExchange CEO Michael Huppe Says the Time Has Come for 'Fair Trade' Music

Mike Huppe

Michael Huppe is CEO of SoundExchange, the independent nonprofit performance rights organization that collects and distributes digital performance royalties to musicians. In 2014, SoundExchange distributed more than $773 million in royalties to working musicians. In this exclusive op-ed with Billboard, Huppe reveals his support for the "Fair Pay for Fair Play" act unveiled last week by Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) and Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN).

There exists a growing movement in our country to base consumer decisions on whether or not the good or service being purchased is created under principles of fairness and justice. We pay extra for “fair trade” coffee harvested under conditions that treat agricultural workers fairly. We boycott brands of designer clothes manufactured using offensive labor tactics in faraway countries. Yet every day many of us consume a product that is founded on mistreatment of the people at the heart of its very creation -- music.

For decades now, music services (most notably FM radio) have existed on business models that do not fairly compensate performers who create the music that is the backbone of offerings. This unfortunate situation has been enabled by imperfect and complicated copyright laws that allow multi-billion dollar businesses to profit at the expense of recording artists, especially in the digital age. And while the digital music era has brought tremendous innovations to market in the form of slick experiences and cool business models, there remains this harmful underbelly of inequity that is invisible to the consumer. All creators should receive fair pay, on all platforms and technologies, whenever their music is used. It’s time for us to demand the same protection and fairness to toiling musicians that we seek in many other areas of our life.

Current copyright laws have left a gaping hundred-year-old loophole for AM/FM radio to not pay a dime for the recordings they play on air. That’s right, performers do not get paid when their works are played on traditional AM/FM radio. Big radio is a $17.5 billion empire, yet they pay nothing to artists for the use of their music.

The problem is compounded by a confusing royalty framework that creates a patchwork of different payment rules for similar services. Internet radio pays one rate, satellite pays yet another -- much lower rate -- and then we have FM radio paying zero.

And sadly, performers with songs recorded before the arbitrary date of Feb. 15, 1972, often receive nothing when their works are played on any platform.

While recording studios are obviously not sweatshops, there is a parallel. It is patently unfair to pay below market for goods -- whether it be music or coffee -- when the very people that devote their lives to make the goods are short-changed into subsidizing multi-billion dollar businesses. The right thing to do is to compensate artists fairly each and every time their recorded work is used. Period.

In a bipartisan effort, Representatives Nadler (D-NY) and Blackburn (R-TN) have introduced a bill that will bring real copyright reform and go a long way towards addressing these injustices with recorded music. If enacted, the Fair Play for Fair Pay Act would secure performance rights for all recording artists across every platform. All artists would be paid a fair market rate for their work, across all platforms and technologies, every time their work is played.

This is the right time for this important piece of legislation. We have a very involved and thoughtful Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who has done extensive hearings on copyright reform and invested a lot of time in listening to industry stakeholders. The Copyright Office is also engaged and many of their recommended reforms called out in their recent comprehensive music report are taken into consideration with this bill.

It’s time for us to provide the same protection for American artists that we seek to provide for the people who make our jeans and harvest our coffee.  It’s about time for fair play fair pay for music.

Billboard welcomes responsible commentary. Readers may submit ideas to the editor at andrew.flanagan@billboard.com