The Music Modernization Act: Music as Politics, Politics as Music

Kanye West made front page news last month with his crazed rant during a meeting with President Donald Trump, going on a tirade about alternate universes and “iPlanes”. What you might have missed was that earlier the same day the President passed a piece of legislation that had been whispered about in the halls of the music industry for decades: the Music Modernization Act.

The Music Modernization Act (MMA) replaces the existing licensing legislation in the US, some of which is as much as 100 years old, and combines three previously submitted bills into one big overhaul of the way songwriters, artists and labels are paid their dues.

The first of these is the headliner, the Music Modernization Act, which establishes a centralised database created and maintained by the major music publishers. The aim of this is to eliminate the confusion previously faced when songwriting credits were not standardised and were stored across several different databases.

The second bill is affectionately known as the Classics Act; “Classics” is an acronym too lengthy for the columns of a student newspaper. The purpose of this act is to bring pre-1972 recordings under federal copyright law, where previously they had to be protected on a state-by-state basis.

The third and final bill is the Allocation for Music Producers (AMP) Act, which makes specific provision for any producers, engineers or sound recordists that are involved in the creation of a recording. This is a particularly important part of the Act for a cohort of the industry who are too often overlooked.

Together, these three acts look to modernise the severely outdated licensing practices previously carried out in the US, minimising the number of legal battles that have plagued the industry since the advent of streaming platforms.

In times of political turmoil, apparently the only thing everyone can agree on is music

The passing of this Act is significant primarily because it represents the first major instance in which artists, publishers and streaming platforms have all agreed on a piece of legislation affecting their activities. It is also one of the rare occasions on which a bill has been passed unanimously both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. In times of political turmoil, apparently the only thing everyone can agree on is music; though the idea of a room full of middle-aged politicians actually doing something good for the music industry is a concept I’m still trying to wrap my head around.

It also vindicates music licensing in the modern, digital age. The concept was born in a time when to license a piece of music meant having the right to physically reproduce that music on a vinyl record. This line of thinking, of course, carried through logically when cassettes and CDs were the norm, but it does not apply quite so appropriately to streaming.

The clearest way in which streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music will be affected is that they will more than likely end up paying out more fees to host music on their services. Previously, the onus was on labels and publishers to ensure that the songwriting data was complete; when it wasn’t, stakeholders were not paid properly. Now that this kind of information is being centralised and standardised, the responsibility sits squarely on the streaming platforms to pay up.

On the flip side, streaming providers are all but guaranteed to receive fewer legal threats. That is, provided they adhere to the guidelines set out in the Music Modernization Act, they are granted greater protection by federal law from being sued. Assuming Spotify and others do indeed follow new regulation, there will also be fewer royalty disputes in the first place and fewer lawsuits as a result.

Spotify, in particular, has come under fire in the past for not creating a similar database of their own to make license payments clearer, leading some industry critics to suggest that Spotify’s support of the MMA was intended primarily to reassure investors after Spotify went public on the stock market earlier this year.

Overall, the creators in the industry will benefit from the new legislation; songwriters, producers and engineers, in particular, will see greater representation for their interests in music law. As a result, they should hopefully receive larger payslips in a more timely fashion.

Those who are losing out are the smaller independent labels, who have historically beared the brunt of the streaming rights debacle, missing out on revenue that has slipped through the net since music streaming services first emerged. The major labels might be able to get by without this cash flow, but for the indies this could represent a significant dent in their profits. And, now that the ability to challenge such cases in court has been reduced, it looks like it might stay that way.

Thankfully, it affects listeners very little – or at least for the meantime. Whilst the likes of Spotify and Apple Music could feasibly increase their user subscription costs to compensate for having to pay out more license fees, there’s currently nothing to indicate that the everyday experience of streaming that many of us enjoy so much is about to change anytime soon.

Tom Paul

Header Image Credit Newsday