Controversy Surrounds SESAC’s Intentions in Amending the Music Modernization Act

BY CATHERINE CHOJNOWSKI

THE MUSIC WORLD HAS MADE ITS MARK ON CAPITOL HILL WITH THE MUSIC MODERNIZATION ACT GAINING MOMENTUM AS SONGWRITERS AND FANS ALIKE SUPPORT THE BILL, ESPECIALLY AFTER SESAC'S CONTROVERSIAL POSITION AND ACTIONS.

Following backlash from songwriters and artists in response to a proposed amendment to the Music Modernization Act, SESAC, a performance rights organization in the United States, has begun responding to questions and grievances expressed towards their amendment, which many believe could derail the bill in its entirety.

The Music Modernization Act (MMA) has been going through the legislative process for nearly two years, aiming to impose new licensing changes to simplify and expedite the way songwriters and artists get paid. Since songwriting is an industry that has witnessed many changes in the new digital era of music streaming, artists and songwriters have been pushing to modernize the over 100-year-old laws that currently govern the music industry. Rolling Stone even described it as, "America's biggest attempt at music copyright overhaul in decades."

Although the Music Modernization Act managed to clear the House and a crucial Senate committee this past Thursday before The Blackstone Group (SESAC's parent company which also owns mechanical licensing group The Harry Fox Agency) proposal, the legislation still faces a Senate floor vote. Critics of the proposal are skeptical of SESAC and Blackstone's intentions behind the proposal and are questioning why the amendment to the MMA was proposed at the very end of the legislative process rather than sooner. In response to the public's objections SESAC has issued an official statement, claiming:

[The proposal] is not a last-minute effort. … The single collective idea was introduced in the House on Dec. 21, 2017. SESAC actively stated in meetings as early as last winter that we never endorsed or supported the portion of the Bill that creates a national monopoly to administer online rights, despite continuing pressure to do so. Since then we have had dozens of meetings with Members of Congress and senior staff, and have had hundreds of communications with policy makers and others in an effort to improve the Bill, not derail it.

SESAC and Blackstone have both voiced their support for the Music Modernization Act in official statements various times, however, they have also expressed opposition to the aspect of the bill that aims to put into place a government-created collective that would issue a blanket mechanical license and would administer collections from the digital service providers. In place of this, the companies prefer that current administrators, including the Harry Fox Agency, continue running daily operations while the collective manages a comprehensive song and recording database as well as blackbox resolutions and payouts. In response, songwriters and artists are accusing SESAC of prioritizing its parent company's investments over the benefit of artists and the songwriting community. Following the public objections to the proposed amendment, SESAC has assured the public that the organization supports the MMA and that its "proposed compromise has no monetary impact on writers or publishers and no impact on their positions with the Collective."

Despite SESAC’s attempts at clearing the air, many still see the proposal as an attempt by Blackstone to hinder the Music Modernization Act before its passing. The proposal has not gained public support from any other music organizations and is opposed by major music streaming companies Apple, Amazon, Google, Spotify, and Pandora. Many artists and even SESAC writers have taken to social media, asking fellow artists to reach out to SESAC to voice their concerns, suggesting writers to resign from the organization, and even urging that non-SESAC writers do not collaborate with SESAC-signed colleagues in the future. Among these writers is Ross Golan, a renowned songwriter honored by BMI last year. The opposition is clear as notable artists such as Steven Tyler, Maren Morris, and Lauren Jauregui stand behind the MMA without SESAC's amendment.

SESAC's proposal has even seen public opposition from its own writers including David Ryan Harris. 

Come on @sesac

A post shared by David Ryan Harris (@drh3) on

All of this attention and opposition has definitely put this issue at the forefront of the music world. Those in support of the original Music Modernization Act hope for it to be passed by the end of the year -- only time will tell the fate of the songwriting business as we know it.

Lead Image Credit: Richard Ricciardi