A stirring rendition of “Hotel California” by its co-scribe, former Eagles member Don Felder, double-neck guitar in tow. Jane Wiedlin and Charlotte Caffey talking the Go-Go’s punk roots before delivering signature tunes “Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat.” Felix Cavaliere delivering the goods on “Beautiful Morning” and “People Gotta Be Free.”
Music was in the air Tuesday night (May 21) at the ASCAP Foundation’s 11th annual “We Write the Songs” event at the Library of Congress. And because showing is more effective than telling — and because the room was filled with lawmakers — so, too, was advocacy. The gala and concert, which also featured performances by songwriters and composers Kany Garcia, Siddhartha Khosla and Andrea Martin, preceded a day of meetings on Capitol Hill where the ASCAP troupe are urging legislators to ease songwriter regulation.
At issue is the heated battle between songwriters and streaming services over a consent decree governing music publishing that dates back to World War II. The legislation, as originally crafted in 1941, renders songwriters among the most heavily regulated small businesses in the country and enables digital distributors to license music for pennies, according to ASCAP president Paul Williams, who spoke with Billboard before he took the stage.
“We’re here to convince them of the value of a transitional consent decree, with a sunset on it,” composer, singer, songwriter and actor Williams said, noting his optimism in the wake of the passage of the Music Modernization Act last October.
“We know there’s a willingness to listen when it’s about music, there’s a willingness to work together. We saw that happen with the Music Modernization Act,” Williams said. “What we have to deal with now is there’s a lot of fear-based thinking about what’s going to happen if we get rid of the consent decree. We don’t want to get rid of the consent decree. We want a transitional decree that maintains certain elements of that decree that are good for everybody. Anyone who wants a license can have a license, but there have to be some adjustments. As it is today, you can sit with an interim license for a decade, and that’s way below market value.”
Williams also pulled no punches calling out detractors for fanning fear in the court of popular opinion. “You can’t go before the public and lie about the facts. When you look at some of the stuff that’s been put out about the consent decree, there are certain facts that have been offered by some of our licensees — I won’t say it by name but it begins with an ‘S’ — that are just not true,” he noted. “All we want is for Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, all the people who deliver our music to the world — we want them to be made more successful than they are now because without them our music winds up in a drawer. It’s pretty clear to go forward we need to be realistic with each other, and that means some serious adjustment.”
Wiedlin told Billboard, “I don’t think anyone has any idea how much things have changed for us. If I was in the public and not in the business, I’d think, ‘Look at Madonna. Look at Mariah. They’re all so rich.’ But that’s only how it is for one in 10 million people. The rest of us are down here scrambling trying to pay the bills. We’ve worked our whole life at this, and we’ve had a lot of success, and yet all our work and all we’ve contributed to music and the world appears to have no value. It’s hard.”
“I’m going to be full retirement age next year, and honestly with all that’s going on with my income, I can’t retire,” Caffey noted. “So many more people are listening to music because of streaming, yet we are getting paid almost nothing. What if there’s an up-and-coming songwriter that’s going to write the song that’s going to mean everything, and they can’t do it because they can’t make a living. That’s why we’re here.”
Like the Music Modernization Act, the ASCAP event was a bipartisan affair. Lawmakers including Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL); Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA), a chief architect of the MMA; Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA); Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA); and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL) took the stage in turn to introduce the performers.
Among the highlights of the night was Khosia, who composes the score for hit NBC drama This Is Us, showing an emotional scene from the series without score music, playing the score piece, then showing the complete scene with the score. No commentary needed. And Wiedlin declaring, “We never set out to be heroes or pioneers for girls, but that’s what ended up happening.” It was a point that reinforced her comment offstage to Billboard: “If you love music and realize how important music is to humanity, you’ve got to support the people who create it for you.”