On Sept. 25, in a moment of rare bipartisanship, the Senate unanimously passed a uniquely bipartisan bill: the Music Modernization Act. It’s the biggest update to music law since the Music Copyright Act of 1976. It was heavily lobbied for by music companies such as Sony/ATV Music Publishing, championed by both Republicans and Democrats, and only faced challenges from distributors like Sirius XM.
The MMA is so popular among both political parties and those in the industry, despite receiving little outside attention, because it has the potential to dramatically reshape the music industry.
Over the last two decades, music streaming has dramatically changed the traditional music industry to the extent that it is unrecognizable. In the Spotify age, where digitally streamed music accounts for 75 percent of music consumption, payment rates for musicians have put a weight around the neck of the industry. On average, artists earn about $0.006 per stream. Since artists can’t rely on streaming revenue, most musicians now make the vast majority of their income through touring. Beyonce, arguably the biggest musician in the world, only earned $2 million dollars from streaming in 2016 when “Lemonade” was released, despite creating a massive cultural moment. Yet, through her tour for the album, the superstar earned more than $50 million.
Beyonce isn’t the only artist with this problem. Songwriter and producer Pharrell Williams famously only made $2,700 off of 43 million streams of his monster hit, “Happy,” on Pandora. To put this in perspective, a million streams on Pandora makes an artist around $60. Of course, top acts can earn millions through other avenues, but many middle and lower-tier musicians struggle to receive any income, even when their songs are streamed constantly.
To help rectify this revenue disparity, the MMA mandates that streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music must fund a Mechanical Licensing Collective in return for music streaming licenses. The MLC, which will be governed by publishers and self-published musicians, must now publish a digital song database that will allow artists to claim rights to their streamed songs — and get paid for them. This helps streaming services match recordings with artists and their labels, allowing musicians to receive fairer pay for their art.
When major music associations like SoundExchange and Broadcast Music Inc. argue over rate-setting, the MMA also allows them to meet with a randomly-rotated judge from New York’s Southern District. Previously, most organizations were assigned a single judge who decided every rate dispute a music association faced. With judge rotation, however, each judge will come to the case with a fresh perspective, rather than with impressions drawn from previous cases. MMA also changed the rules to allow judges to consider a song’s value on the ever-changing open market, improving pay rates for songwriters.
The MMA’s creation also closes a loophole which prevented artists who recorded music before 1972 from receiving their due royalties. This is crucial, as many artists who provided talent to major hit songs never received their fair share of the profits. It also allows artists to claim digital royalties for recordings made before 1995’s Digital Performance Right Act. Artists can now demand pay when their older, unprotected songs are used on digital platforms, such as online radio programs like Pandora.
However, the most notable facet of the MMA is the AMP Act, which allows royalties on satellite and online radio play for music producers and engineers. Today, the pop landscape is increasingly driven by influential producers like Dr. Dre and Mark Ronson. While the role of producers has expanded over the last 25 years, this is the first time in American law that producers are explicitly mentioned in copyright law. A producer’s artistic input shapes instrumentation, production value, beat creation, sound mixing and engineering, song arrangement, and more. The need to monetize their contributions through royalties is years old. Finally, the MMA has given producers that recognition, and the MMA's acknowledgment that modern music is more than just an individual effort will certainly reinvigorate the industry.
The digital age has dramatically expanded the genres of music available and ultimately allowed for greater expression. However, it also made getting compensation for streamed songs more difficult. The MMA helps new artists make a living through their art. It reshapes the musical landscape and allows amateur musicians a greater opportunity to achieve success. Future generations of musicians will be encouraged to make a living by pushing creative boundaries and producing good art.
Next time you’re listening to your favorite song on Spotify, you can rest easy knowing you’re helping support your favorite musician financially — and that’s good for music everywhere.
Christian Thrailkill (@wolvie616) is a musician and a Young Voices contributor. He lives in Dallas.