Changing Strategies and Bipartisanship (Gasp!) at ASCAP Expo Legislators Panel

Paul Williams, Doug Collins, Karen Bass, Priscilla Renea & Clara Kim
Lester Cohen/Getty Images for ASCAP

ASCAP President Paul Williams, Congressman Doug Collins, Congressmember Karen Bass, songwriter Priscilla Renea, and General Counsel, ASCAP Clara Kim speak onstage at 'Music Licensing Reform: The Fight for Your Rights' during the 2017 ASCAP 'I Create Music' EXPO on April 14, 2017 in Los Angeles.

A unicorn was seen in Hollywood yesterday as two politicians did the unthinkabke: agreed.

A miracle seemingly happened at yesterday's ASCAP I Create Music Expo legislative panel: Two congressional legislators from opposite sides of the aisle, Congressman Doug Collins, a Republican from the red state of Georgia, and Representative Karen Bass, a Democrat from blue state of California, actually agreed on something. And it's an issue that could have a profound impact on the music business as we know it,

The confab's "Music Licensing Reform: Fight For Your Rights" panel, that also included the performance rights organization's president and songwriter Paul Williams, ASCAP's hyper-articulate chief consul Clara Kim and songwriter Priscilla Renea, delved deeply into the issue of reforming the U.S. music licensing system. 

Anchored in 76-year-old consent decrees, the five-panelists were in agreement on their disdain for the current system which they and the auditorium filled with songwriters view as antiquated, inequitable, over-regulated, inefficient and stifling free market competition.

"For one million streams across different streaming platforms the payout is on average $170 dollars," explained Renea, a songwriter who has co-written songs for Fifth Harmony, Nick Jonas, Miranda Lambert and Demi Lovato among many others. Her salient follow-up question was one not easily answerable: "If it takes 15 people to make a song, how do we expect to sustain a career and continue to create music?"

For the last 3 years ASCAP has been trying to change the U.S. music licensing system by having the Department of Justice carrying out a full review of the consent decrees and which last summer was denied.

"We think the DOJ got it wrong," Kim said, "and it's unfair to songwriters and not consistent with the purpose of consent decrees which is to promote competition." 

But Kim pointed out that the DOJ's closing statement opened the door for congress to get more involved in the issue. The DOJ, she said quoting its ruling, called for "the development of a comprehensive legislative solution that insures a competitive marketplace and obviates the need for the division's oversight of the PROs."  

"We're actively pursuing this solution with our partners on Capitol Hill to try to find a solution and that's even as we look to revisit the consent decrees with new administration," she said. "Now of course there's is some powerful opposition to change, but we think we have a really compelling case to make that valuable government resources and tax payer dollars are being wasted enforcing these outdated and unnecessary regulations on songwriters. The good news is that there's some good people in congress who share our view and want to help us."

On cue both Representatives Bass and Collins expressed both their agreement with reforming these regulations and especially on the importance of ASCAP's membership being more active on this issue and engaging their legislators. This was a sentiment repeated throughout the panel—especially by the ever-charming Paul Williams who noted how well the fact that he co-wrote the "Theme to Love Boat" plays on Capitol Hill.

"One of the thing needed is your specific involvement," Congresswoman Bass said. "It means a lot when you come to congress and meet with us. There's 535 of us if you include the senate and all of us come to to these positions from a variety of backgrounds. I had no idea what went into a song until ASCAP took me through that process. Your making contact with your individual members of Congress is critical."

Rep. Collins concurred adding that "We're just asking for [music licensing] to be fair. We're not asking to get extra or more or to put you at an advantage. Right now your beautiful wonderful work that touches the lives of people is being held back by forces outside of your control."

Kim went on to explain ASCAP's strategy in the wake of the DOJ ruling. Now, she said, instead of trying to overhaul or terminate the consent decrees the PRO is focusing on two "very important, but reasonable priorities."

The first is a periodic review of the of decades old consent decrees. "We believe the  government has an obligation to review consent decrees at least every few years," she said, "and justify why they're necessary and ensure that they're actually promoting competition rather than hindering —which is their purpose."

The second priority Kim outlined is rate court reform. She explained how there are only two rate court judges  appointed for life and that the process is extremely time consuming and expensive with a single case potentially lasting years and costing tens of millions of dollars. The process, she  claimed, consistently produces rates far below what ASCAP believes songwriters would get in a free market.

"There is no other creative industry— whether it's film, books, television or  video games—that are decided this way," Kim said. "They're all all decided in free market. and we don't' believe music composition should be  treated differently."

She and ASCAP endorse replacing the rate court system with a faster less expensive dispute resolution process which, as with other industries, is decided by arbitrators who have industry expertise and/or multi-member administrative bodies with staggered terms. This, she said, would create more certainty, be less costly and prevent licensees from sitting on license applications or interim licenses to "avoid paying fair value for the music they use."

As informative as the legislators panel was, it surely would have been greatly enhanced with at least one panelist opposed to reforming music licensing. Perhaps a start-up music-tech company that's operated under the rules it was given and which managed to create a business that could be ruined if songwriters were to receive higher royalty rates.

But this panel's purpose here, in front of a home town crowd, was clearly aimed at motivating the many young songwriters gathered to be active on an issue that could determine their livelihoods and those of many generations to follow.