As Streaming Grows, Music Industry Should Demand Equal Pay for Pre-1972 Songs (Guest Column)

Simon & Garfunkel 1980s - Getty - H 2018
Chris Walter/Getty Images

Songwriter-producer Michele Vice-Maslin makes her case for why Congress needs to take action to change the way artists like Simon & Garfunkel are paid for songs created before 1972.

As a songwriter and producer, I have had the good fortune of having my songs recorded by amazing artists, many becoming hits all over the world. My songs have also been featured more than 5,000 times in movies, TV series and commercials — ranging from the soap opera Guiding Light to the recent film Downsizing. I have even been nominated for Emmys, winning along the way. Still, with that kind of track record, success in this crazy business is never guaranteed. I am blessed to be able to create music for a living, in part, because I can rely on revenue streams from platforms like digital radio services.

But many of my peers — include legacy artists whom I have learned from, been inspired by or simply admired from afar — often cannot count themselves as lucky. A serious injustice exists involving the public performance of their older sound recordings on certain digital platforms.

By “legacy artists,” I am referring to artists who released sound recordings prior to 1972. Due to an arbitrary glitch in copyright law, these works have been deprived of federal protection when played on digital radio services such as Pandora or SiriusXM. Instead, protection is determined on a state-by-state basis, which has opened a loophole for some digital radio companies to avoid paying artists fairly for streaming their songs — some of which are among the most recognizable tunes to ever hit the airwaves.

Imagine the frustration of hearing a song you created decades earlier continually played on a popular station like ’60s on 6 on SiriusXM, knowing the platform playing it is raking in money while you receive nothing. I don’t use the phrase “raking in” lightly. Revenue from streaming radio has swelled to more than $4 billion annually, becoming a cornerstone of music industry earnings amid the continued decline of traditional album sales. SiriusXM CFO David Frear told investors recently, “We’re just a cash-flow machine.”

Maybe, but not a pre-1972 artist-friendly one.

Fortunately, help is on the way. A bill called the "Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society Act” (CLASSICS Act) was introduced in Congress recently, and it is trying to right this wrong. This bipartisan bill aims to provide that missing federal protection for pre-1972 recordings in the digital streaming space, establishing a single, nationwide system that would ensure all artists, new and old, get paid in precisely the same way and at precisely the same rate for the digital broadcast of their works.

There is no good reason why pre-1972 artists should not get their fair share; they certainly deserve it. This group of legacy musicians not only includes some of the most iconic performers to ever lay down a groove, but also innumerable producers, arrangers, independent artists, backup singers and session musicians who toiled away out of the spotlight for decades.

Some of these folks, obviously, are doing just fine, while others have struggled. With the passage of time, even some of our most iconic musicians have lost the ability to tour or to make new music that might bring them more income. Royalties on their existing hits may be their only safety net. The reality is the bulk of royalty payments are relatively small amounts that go to individuals who are just trying to get by like anyone else — paying their bills, buying their groceries, feeding their families, etc.

Decades in entertainment have made me realize that the impact of older recordings in my line of work are not just aural, they have a profound effect on what we see as well, on screens big and small. Think about “Mrs. Robinson” in The Graduate, “Stuck in the Middle With You” in Reservoir Dogs, and many more instances where a perfectly executed music cue helped define an unforgettable cinematic moment — and sometimes, an entire generation.

Which is all to say that pre-1972 music recordings have shaped our society in ways even deeper than we might imagine. Depriving their creators of the same digital performance royalties enjoyed by their post-1972 counterparts is an affront not only to the creators but to the artistic freedoms and institutions that make our country great.

No bill is ever a sure thing in the halls of Congress — that much we know. There are plenty of challenges in getting even a common-sense reform such as the CLASSICS Act on the right track. But with the full support of a united music community behind it, this could be the year that Congress finally gives legacy artists the respect they deserve.

I call on all creators to urge their members of Congress to pass the CLASSICS Act, and help right a historic wrong that has been corroding a vital corner of American culture for far too long.

Michele Vice-Maslin of Sweetersongs/Mob Force Productions is an Emmy-winning songwriter, producer and publisher. Her work can be heard in more than 5,000 media music placements, including Downsizing, Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the TV Land series Younger.