Paul Williams on His Journey From 'Out-of-Work Actor' to President of ASCAP (Q&A)

Paul Williams

Matt Furman

This article first appeared in the new issue of Billboard Magazine.

In an era in which the music business has seen unprecedented change and disruption, some things remain constant. The creativity of songwriters and composers lies at the heart of the music business. And the ability of creators and their publishers to get paid for their work is the financial foundation upon which the music industry has been built.

After more than five decades as a songwriter and actor, Paul Williams is now playing perhaps the most important role of his career, as president and chairman of ASCAP, helping the performance rights organization fight against copyright infringements and ensuring songwriters get fair compensation for their creative efforts.

 
Williams is well-known for the hits he has written and co-written -- Three Dog Night’s “Old Fashioned Love Song,” the Carpenters’ “We’ve Only Just Begun” and Barbra Streisand’s “Evergreen,” to name a few -- as well as the dozens of roles he has portrayed on TV and in film, including “Phantom of the Paradise,” and appearances on “The Muppet Show,” “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Hawaii Five-O.”

Even though he still gets called on to write songs with hipster bands like Scissor Sisters and Daft Punk -- with whom he accepted the album of the year Grammy Award on Jan. 26 for the French duo’s "Random Access Memories" -- nowadays Williams is best-known as a champion against the forces of the “copy-left” movement.

Earlier this year at a copyright summit staged in Washington, D.C., by CISAC, the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, Williams declared in a keynote address that calling the illegal download of music “piracy” glamorizes what is really “plain outright theft.” He argued forcefully against claims of the technology sector that copyright stifles innovation.

“Copyright is the very definition of innovation,” he said.

 
Billboard: How did you begin writing songs?
Paul Williams: I was an out-of-work actor. I knew nothing about the music business. I was totally ignorant about how the music business worked. I had written a few songs and then a friend played them for A&M. I showed up at A&M Records in 1967 in a borrowed car. My only connection to the music business, even when I was in high school, [was that] I totally loved the Great American Songbook. My favorite lyricist is Johnny Burke, who wrote “Here’s That Rainy Day” with composer Jimmy Van Heusen. My other all-time favorite lyricist is Lorenz Hart, an ASCAP writer. Rodgers & Hart, [George & Ira] Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter. When everyone else was listening to Chuck Berry, I was listening to [Frank] Sinatra.
 
How did you become an ASCAP member?
As soon as I had my toe in the water, and as soon as I became a friend of some of the other people in the business, it was clear that I belonged at ASCAP. The most beautiful part of my story is that Sammy Cahn, a great character and a generous soul, took me by the hand and said, “We need to walk you over to ASCAP. That’s where you belong.” And he was right.
 
Why did you belong at ASCAP?
At the time, music was changing. I am not an expert on programming but I think for the kind of song I was involved with -- at the time I would describe myself under the terms of those times as an “easy listening” writer -- ASCAP offered a blanket license including the stations that would be playing my kind of music. So the fit was natural.
 
Was the difference clear right away?
You get your membership card in the mail. I remember holding my card and right there it says the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers and there is your number and your membership and your name. Something clicked in the center of my chest. I had done something that a lot of people don’t really get to do. I was living my dream. I was making a living doing what I loved -- what I was put in this world to do. When I wrote my first song, I felt like I was home. The first time I played a song and a young lady tilted her head to the side and went “Ahhh,” I said, “Oh, boy. This is what I am supposed to do. This is the beginning of my path.”

Today, ASCAP offers not only that emotion to young songwriters, but the opportunity to back it up. If you look at the ASCAP “I Create Music” Expo, the ASCAP Song Camp, the TV and film composer workshop, the work of the ASCAP Foundation -- there are endless opportunities for the writers not only to feel connected like they are living the dream as creators, but a real opportunity to learn their craft, rub elbows with the greats and collaborate. My career has benefited many times [from] somebody walking up to me and saying, “Do you want to do this?” ASCAP provides that to its membership.
 
What is ASCAP’s most important tool to help developing songwriters?
Expo would be our shining star. It’s an annual event. We just had a separate amazing event in Miami where a large part of the Spanish-speaking creative community, really big writers, were able to collaborate with members of the urban music community. It was a mix-and-match of genres. I would say that would be another shining star at the moment. I love that ASCAP gathers every year such a great collection of experts, with the latest technology.
 
As you became familiar with ASCAP, what kind of services did it offer then as compared to now?
ASCAP has evolved as a platform. Its flexibility has allowed it to run at the forefront of [tracking] how music is delivered as the world changes. If I am laying in a hotel room in 1982 and waking up with the TV on and “The Love Boat” is playing, I’d say, “Thank you, God, it’s nice to be working." When that theme that Charles Fox and I wrote is performed in any fashion anywhere around the world, ASCAP is there to license it for me.

ASCAP OnStage allows members who are out there performing in clubs and whatnot to tell us about their live performances via an online portal and to get paid for them. Also, we have the longstanding ASCAP Plus Awards, which support members with annual cash awards outside our [performance] surveys.
 
As a member, did you appreciate what ASCAP was doing for songwriters?
The opportunities to participate as a board member was a huge awakening for me, as to what ASCAP actually did, and a world that I was totally unaware of before. For example, the world of advocacy. ASCAP is there, rising to the occasion to deal with these changing [times], [and the] sometimes turbulent cyberworld we are living in nowadays.

Also, we have been monitoring online [music performances] since 1995. As we move further into the digital world -- where the collection and monitoring of data is key -- we have spent a great amount of money, time, effort and intellect making sure that we have the system that is absolutely the best to monitor what we license and collect for our members.

We are across the board in the cyberworld and we will continue to grow. We have our challenges -- the Pandora situation is classic. [Pandora is seeking to pay lower royalty rates for the use of music composed by ASCAP members.] But as you look at our history, you can see again and again we meet the challenge [of new technology]. ASCAP is there -- flexible and changing and rising to the occasion so that we can not only survive but flourish. There is no one that does better what we do.
 
Were you aware of ASCAP’s advocacy efforts when you joined, or did that unfold after you became a member?
ASCAP always worked beautifully for you as a songwriter, whether you were aware of it or not. It’s wonderful that ASCAP is doing all this work. Advocacy is obviously important to what they do. I talked to a young writer last night and I told him, “Learn about your world.” When I first joined ASCAP, I was already having hit songs. My circle of friendships grew. I became aware of what was going on. But there has really been a steep learning curve in my years [since joining] the board in 2001 and in the last few years as president. My point is that whether you are aware of it or not -- and there was a time when I was unaware of it -- ASCAP is there fighting for my rights and for all songwriters’ rights.
 
So before you joined the board, you were unaware of the policy issues affecting songwriters?
I was remarkably unaware. As the creative spirit, we dive into our world and follow our heart. I was up to my ears in [my] career. The other thing that is key to my life is [that] I have been sober for 24 years, so my clarity is a great asset to my life. If you go back to the 1980s and 1970s -- like a lot of young writers and artists -- I had the blinders on. A lot of elements to my life probably suffered a little bit, as a father, a family man. One of the gifts of my recovery is my clarity.

When you have the ability to experience the world around you, one of the things that quickly follows is gratitude. I have become so grateful for the ASCAP of today.

Ultimately, we are a membership organization. We are owned and operated by the members. And the fruit that ASCAP bears clearly translates to food on the table and gas in my car and getting my kids into school. I have two wonderfully successful young adults who were raised on ASCAP.

I’m very proud of ASCAP’s advocacy, our devotion, our integrity, our history, the legacy of great songwriters and composers, and especially our future.

 

Related

Should young members be involved in making the case for the advocacy of songwriters?
We have had marvelous support. I recently did an event with Ne-Yo where he sang some of his songs for a bunch of members of the [U.S. Senate] Judiciary Committee. It was a wonderful event. The Library of Congress has been an amazing partner in putting together events annually. We do an event where songwriters from various states are introduced by their local representatives.

I see an increasing willingness of members to step forward and say, “I am writing this from my chest. The business world is using my music to create great profit. We deserve to have our fair share of that.”

From the days of Metallica or Lily Allen, who stepped up on these issues and clearly suffered in some way from a backlash . . . now the world is beginning to see that things are clearly out of balance. When a thousand streams is worth 8 cents, something is terribly wrong. [ASCAP has stated that, on average, every 1,000 plays of a song on Pandora is worth about 8 cents to the songwriters, composers and music publishers, according to its internal calculations. The PRO now believes it is time to revise the terms under which it licenses music. Those terms were established by a consent decree reached in 1941 with the Department of Justice.]
 
Before you assumed a position of power in the organization, was there anything you wished ASCAP was doing for its members that you helped get the organization to do since taking on a leadership role?
There isn’t one thing that I can look at that should have been done but wasn’t done. I am really pleased with the process of the way the board works. You are sitting with 12 individual writers and publishers and they all have their own interests and you see little or none of that in the boardroom. The board’s capacity to be altruistic and caring about the membership has amazed me.
 
How has ASCAP improved its data and royalty collections?
We spent a ton of money and created an entire new system in the last five to seven years, which has [been] continually improved and upgraded. When you deal in zeros and ones and the brilliance and the capacity of introducing a computer to deal with this information now, versus the days of sampling 20 or 30 years ago when people worked with pencils and typewriters, the ability to monitor this information is getting better and better. Also, through our Member Access online portal, our members have access to an enormous level of detail about their catalogs, performances and royalties. We are constantly upgrading to handle the information responsibly and act on it more quickly than any other organization in the world.
 
Is there anything about ASCAP’s history that you’ve learned that made you appreciate the organization in a different way?
One of my favorite stories is the story of radio. Having to deal with a world where an entire industry turns to you and says, “Sorry, this is not a performance. This is an electronic transmission and we can prove it is not a performance.” At that point, we saw ASCAP as a warrior for the light. [ASCAP’s leaders then] said, “You are wrong. This is a performance. People are listening to it, falling in love to it, and you are selling advertising around it, and we want a piece of that advertising so that people who are writing songs can continue to write songs so people can continue to dance to it. It is an absolute issue of the heart.”

To this day it stuns me that, before I was born, there were people here fighting so that this product of my heart would be treated respectfully and lovingly and I would be able to make a living at it -- that I could have a life to fulfill my dreams and do [the creative work] I want to do.

This Article First Appeared in the New Billboard -- Click Here to Buy This Issue

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