ASCAP President Paul Williams on Expo 2014, Consent Decrees & Pastrami Sandwiches, Daft Punk (Q&A)

Paul Williams, president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

(Photo: Courtesy of ASCAP)

The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers kicks off its ninth annual ASCAP Expo on Thursday (April 24-26) at the Loews Hollywood Hotel in Los Angeles. This years event features artists (Beth Orton, Akon, Richie Sambora, Amy Grant), songwriters and/or producers (Dr. Luke, Glen Ballard, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Steve Lilywhite, Desmond Child) industry vets (Warner/Chappell’s Jon Platt; MAC Presents’ Marcie Allen; UMPG’s Jessica Rivera), politicians (Congressman Tom Marino, Representative Judy Chu) and many others who will churn over the many issues facing today's music publishing industry.

Billboard caught up with ASCAP's inimitable president Paul Williams, the Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe winning Hall of Fame composer whose many hits include "We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "The Rainbow Connection," "An Old Fashioned Love Song," on the eve of this year's confab. Here Williams explained what motivates him every day to advocate on the behalf of songwriters, compared the issue of rate court and consent decrees to a pastrami sandwich and broke down the random access memory of how he ended up on Daft Punk’s Grammy-winning album.

Billboard: Tell us about this year’s ASCAP Expo
Paul Williams: The best way to describe it is what I imagine a great high school in the spring is like and going out to the quad. There's something about that and the creativity and energy and the sense of being surrounded by all these creator—people from the songwriting and publishing worlds and the amazing panels that has a feeling of fellowship and family.  My high school, by the way, was nothing like that. I was busy being dunked in the pool and getting snapped by towels.

Which panels are you on?
This year Gustavo Santaolalla and I are doing a panel. We’re currently working on stage version of “Pan's Labyrinth” and we just finished writing songs for “Book of Life” a Fox Animated film. We're going to talk about the creative process. He's an amazing composer, He won an Oscar twice for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel.”

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Aren’t you also doing a political panel with Congressman Tom Marino and Rep. Judy Chu, what will be the focus?
We'll be talking about where we are right now and what's happening on the Hill. One of the major problems we have is with the consent decree which is an agreement between the Department of Justice and ASCAP which says we cannot deny anybody access to our music – we have no right of refusal. If someone wants access to our music, we have to give them access. So what happens if someone wants our music so they're no longer infringing because they have our license but they don’t want to pay us what we're asking? The best way I can describe it is if you have a delicatessen and somebody walks in and says they want a pastrami sandwich, you've got to make them a pastrami sandwich. But then if they take the pastrami sandwich and say, “You know what, actually, I don't think it's worth the $6.00.” So now we have to go to rate court and have a judge determine exactly what the sandwich is worth. One of the problems with that is for years in rate court we can’t talk about what the other copyright holders are getting. There's a huge inordinate balance between what the copyright is for the recording and the much smaller amount for the copyright on original material.  It's out of balance.

It’s amazing how deep you delved into the incredily complex world of consent decrees, rate courts and digital royalties and yet you are also a Grammy-winning songwriter and wrote "Rainbow Connection," did you ever think you would be doing this?
In my entire life I could not trace the events that brought me here. Some key changes in my life I turn to and think is a seminal event in my life and that I have to acknowledge and I always do is that I'm 24 years sober. On March 15, 1990 when instead of coming to I woke up. I spiritually woke up and put a plug in the jug and I've been sober and active in recovery since then


Paul Williams (center) with Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk accepting the Album of the Year award honors for 'Random Access Memories' at the 56th GRAMMY Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

But what you’re doing is way beyond being sober. You’re more engaged and intellectually and politically involved in difficult issues that people who’ve been sober their entire lives can’t begin to wrap their heads around.
One thing asked of us in sobriety is that we live in love and in service. In 2001 I joined the ASCAP Board of Directors and it's now my third term as president. And while we're talking there's probably a young woman composing on an electric keyboard with headphones on so she doesn't wake the baby in the next room sleeping. That’s a great image for me. I go “wait a minute, while I'm sitting here and we're having a nice conversation about what we're able to do and there’s this women [who needs help].” Based on these efforts the work she is doing, if she has a spectacular big fortune break, if she writes something from the center of her chest that is authentic and honest and emotional and people respond to it and she's lucky enough to get a recording and people on the radio start playing it, it can translate into baby food on the table, gas in her car to drive the kids to school and ultimately it all comes back to that. I’m up to my ears in all this but at end of the day, I want to put my head on the pillow and think, “Wait a minute, were you in service to the young songwriters trying to make a living today? Were my actions for the highest good of all concerned?” 

But how do you handle Capitol Hill where so many issues are killed or watered down by politics and interest groups and partisan bickering? It’s a hard place to take even with the best intentions
It’s an honor and privilege and there’s an energy to it. When I’m walking the halls of Congress there’s an energy to it that takes me back to Jimmy Stewart and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  I get very Jiminy Cricket about this entire process. This is a chance to do something that adds in ending struggles and can result in endless opportunities. There's an elegance in it and I see it reflected in the people around me, the people I work with on the board and how we deal with these issues – I see a really high side of peoples’ spirits.

 

Speaking of highs, how about this year’s Grammys?
I have a spectacular life. This whole thing with Daft Punk was just…  To be 72-years old and win an Album of the Year Grammy  – that just doesn’t happen. It happened because these two guys. In 1974 I made a movie “Phantom of the Paradise” that no one saw – my family didn’t even go to this movie.  Those two guys met at a screening at the theatre where the “Phantom of the Paradise” was showing in Paris and they watched it 20 times over the years together. And they became huge fans of this movie. And the next thing you know their in a studio working on “Tron.” They brought in a piano player named Chris Caswell who is my musical director. He hears them talking about Paul Williams and how they’d like to work with him.  He says ‘Well, I just came off the road with him."  They pick up the phone, call me and ask me if I can write some lyrics and sing one of their songs. So we don’t know the impact we’re going to have on somebody’s life today, five years from now, ten years from now, or even 80 years from now.