Top Songwriters Call For Colleagues to Resign From SESAC Over Music Modernization Act

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The US Capitol Building in Washington, DC.

Top songwriters are taking to social media to decry what they believe is an attempt by Blackstone — the owner of SESAC and the Harry Fox Agency — to  torpedo the Music Modernization Act by proposing changes they allege will doom the sweeping legislation.

The writers’ tweets and Instagram posts range from asking fellow songwriters to contact SESAC to voice their opposition to suggesting that writers resign from the professional rights organization and that non-SESAC writers not collaborate with their SESAC-signed colleagues. 

The campaign comes after both the Nashville Songwriters International Assn. and the Songwriters of North America have criticized Blackstone, which acquired SESAC in 2017 for more than $1 billion, and alleged its suggested changes insert a “poison pill” into the legislation. Private equity firm Blackstone’s SESAC purchase included HFA, which SESAC bought in 2015.

Though SESAC and Blackstone have repeatedly voiced support of MMA via statements, they have expressed opposition to the bill’s plan to set up a government-created collective that would issue a blanket mechanical license and would administer collections from the digital service providers. Instead, SESAC and Blackstone want HFA and other current administrators to continue day-to-day administration and pay out royalties, while leaving the Collective with building and managing a comprehensive song and recording database and handling blackbox resolutions and payouts. 

Songwriters allege that Blackstone’s actions could cause the whole multi-faceted MMA deal to collapse and it is putting its investment in HFA ahead of the greater good for the songwriting community. After passing through the House of Representatives, the MMA is now in the Senate.

Ross Golan, whom BMI honored as songwriter of the year at its 2017 Pop Awards, started gently on Monday (July 23), taking to Instagram to urge fellow songwriters to reach out to SESAC and ask them to back the MMA as is.

Since then, his missives have gotten increasingly more forceful. On Tuesday, he followed up on Instagram calling for songwriters to leave SESAC: “Songwriters: you wanna act like a union? Boycott and resign from SESAC. The parent company for SESAC bought Harry Fox Agency. Their pushback on the MMA is about protecting their acquisition (AKA bailout) not YOU. SESAC members, this is your moment. Go to ASCAP or BMI.”

On Wednesday (July 25) , he tweeted his strongest message yet:

A number of other leading songwriters, including multiple Grammy winner Josh Kear, and Grammy-nominated writers James “JHart” Abrahart, Shelly Peiken and busbee have either posted their own comments criticizing SESAC or reposted tweets by other songwriters.

A number of artists, including Steven Tyler and CMA Awards vocal duo of the year Brothers Osborne have also joined in, with the latter tweeting

SESAC is also now taking to social media to respond to some of the allegations. It has posted three times within the past 24 hours on its Twitter page, reiterating that the organization supports the MMA and that its “proposed compromise has no monetary impact on writers or publishers and no impact on their positions with the Collective.” 

Additionally, SESAC is replying directly to attacks by songwriters. On Thursday (July 26) afternoon, Golan tweeted that SESAC’s amendment to the MMA means HFA can “tack on 16% to your royalties that the DSPs are willing to absorb in the current deal.”  SESAC replied to Golan, stating, “Respectfully, the only change would be that Private Certified Administrators compete to be hired by the digital music companies to process and distribute royalties based on the database maintained by the Collective.” It then links to SESAC’s position paper on MMA.

Golan replied by accusing SESAC’s “private certified company” of “skimming off the top and hasn’t collected mechanical royalties well for years.” 

With so much at stake for songwriters, Golan feels that the drastic measures, such as calling for writers to leave SESAC or deciding not to work with SESAC writers, are appropriate. “I think SESAC writers have options to leave SESAC. I hope they all ask SESAC for their window of resignation to show this is serious,” he tells Billboard. “As far as I'm concerned, it's our right to choose with whom we write. If SESAC ruins this opportunity for the songwriting community, I will not be endorsing SESAC writers on [podcast] And The Writer Is... and I will not be writing with complacent SESAC writers. Some are locked in contracts with SESAC but that doesn't mean they can't begin the process.”

SESAC’s senior VP of creative operations, Sam Kling, says SESAC has heard from a number of songwriters about the issue, adding “Unfortunately, I don’t feel like songwriters have heard a balanced story yet. What we’re seeing is a coordinated campaign against us that’s being led by two messaging centers in Nashville and Los Angeles. The message they are sending out is very specific and one-sided. The changes we’ve suggested won’t hamper songwriters in any way. We’re certainly not trying to damage the MMA. We wholeheartedly are in support of the MMA's goals.” 

Emmy-nominated songwriter Bruce Miller, whom SESAC presented with its prestigious Legacy Award in 2012, took to Facebook Thursday night (July 26) somewhat defending the organization —or at least asking for some clarity —  following a report about the situation on a Nashville TV station: “As a SESAC writer, and an objective professional, I've been treated well by the SESAC administration. I also am always open to the truth, and if there is something egregious going on, I want to know about it. But so far, all I get is that SESAC wants to make more money, and that is not a reason for saying it is destroying the music industry. There's a lot of anger and venom being tossed around and some legitimate answers are in order. It's not enough to throw stones and complain. Let's hear some details... please.” 

Regardless of what comes next, songwriter busbee, who emailed top executives at SESAC to voice his opposition to their actions, says this is a pivotal moment for songwriters to understand what is at stake. “I hope the main thing that happens is it gets more songwriters engaged,” he says. “There’s a strong stereotype that writers are not super engaged on the business end of things. There’s been a mentality that we’re the employees of this system, but that’s not the case. Each writer needs to function like a small business and speak out. We have strength in numbers.” 

Ed Christman assisted with this story.