Is It Time For US Music Industry To Speak With One Voice? [Emmanuel Legrand]
In the wake of a series of legal squabbles and lawsuits which have served to slow the progress of updating copyright law in the US, it may be time to for the music industry here to look to UK, who have faced similar issues in recent years, but emerged with a unified front in the form of UK Music.
This summer, a group of American songwriters mounted a scathing attack against SESAC, accusing the US rights society of using last minute tactics to derail the Music Modernisation Act, the one piece of legislation that the whole industry has been battling for over the past couple of years. SESAC was pushing for an amended version of the bill that would allow third parties to continue to administer mechanical rights, in order to save the business of its subsidiary HFA.
The dispute went as far as songwriters calling for other songwriters (signed to SESAC) to leave the society since SESAC was allegedly working against their interests. Eventually, under the aegis of peace brokers (the NMPA and Senators who were urging for a compromise), the parties agreed to not only a cease fire, but to jointly promote a new version of the bill that would include a provision favourable to SESAC.
"It was pure appetite for self-destruction."
The point here is not to say who was right or who was wrong, but to highlight the simple fact that the sad war of words was, to say the least, one of the most counter-productive sequence impacting the interests of the US music community in ages. It was pure appetite for self-destruction.
It was an unwise event at a time when the MMA continued to faced serious challenges from Sen. Wyden, or SiriusXM, that have the potential to fully derail the over two-year process which saw the building of a full consensus in the industry, a unanimous vote by the House and a flying victory at the Senate's Judiciary Committee. The vision of one side of the industry bickering against another was devastating. There couldn't have been a worst image of the industry than one of divisions, rather than unity.
To the foreign observer, it had a feeling of déja vu. In 2005, British record label's trade body the BPI sued rights organisations MCPS-PRS Alliance (as it was then called) about, surprise!, mechanical rates, arguing that the Alliance was imposing licensing rates that were "unreasonable and unsustainable." The irony was that in that battle, the BPI had serious partners n crime in Apple, which was challenging the mechanical rates it had to pay on its iTunes Store, and six other online services.
Eventually, in September 2006, all the parties settled and agreed to a new rate. But during all these months the climate in the industry was despicable, with a war of words between the different sides that was clouding any other issue faced by the industry. And in the end, the only people who won anything from the cross-industry carpet-bombing were…the lawyers, as it transpired later that the litigation process cost over 10 million pounds to each party, for a zero-sum result. That money belonged to rights owners, not to lawyers.
Needless to say that the British government was looking at the music industry's civil war with disbelief. Reflecting on such disaster, a few sane minds, including those who waged the war in the first place, decided that enough was enough and that the industry had to grow up and present a different front. So the leaders of the industry's main organisations gathered to not only discuss a truce but go one step further and set up a structure that would serve as the industry's platform for discussion and also be the voice of the industry in its dealings with the government. Hence the creation of UK Music, which still exists to this date and in over a decade has become indeed the voice of the industry and a formidable lobbying tool.
Time For A Bold Move In the US?
Maybe time's up for such a similar bold move by the US music industry. It will not diminish the competition in the industry, but it will offer a position to reflect and to act, as one. It will strengthen the voice of the industry, and it will most certainly be welcomed by the bi-partisan members of Congress who are ready to support the industry's agenda.
Interestingly, this week we've seen an embryo of what such a coalition could achieve when 18 US music groups signed a joint statement outlining their concern about the copyright provisions in the renegotiated NAFTA trade agreement between the USA and Mexico.
By the way, UK Music worked because around the table you had the chief executives of all the organisations, not the second or third tier of executives. The high level representation on its board ensured that no time would be wasted in petty discussions, and solutions had to found internally before taking them public.
So, has time finally come for USA Music?
Emmanuel Legrand is a Washington, DC-based independent journalist.