Future 25: Kay Hanley and Michelle Lewis Give Songwriters a Voice - Rolling Stone
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Future 25: Kay Hanley and Michelle Lewis, Co-Directors of Songwriters of North America

The artists-turned-advocates lead American songwriters’ first-ever de facto union

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Michelle Lewis and Kay Hanley, two songwriters who double as the executive directors of advocacy group Songwriters of North America, describe their roles as “first responders to a fire,” their organizational missive as “building an army for when the big fights erupt,” and their career trajectory as de facto union leaders as “falling ass-backwards into a vacuum.”

In their previous lives, Hanley led the alt-rock band Letters to Cleo and Lewis released solo albums while working with artists like Cher and Kelly Osbourne. But the two singer-songwriters banded together a few years ago to sue the U.S. Department of Justice over a controversial new licensing rule affecting songwriters’ earnings — and they’ve not slowed their political charge since then, turning a grassroots group of friends into a major force pressing for fair pay for songwriters within industry-roiling issues such as the recently passed Music Modernization Act and Congress’s ongoing tussle over music copyright law.. Though they never planned for SONA to be a formal group (“We started out just calling ourselves the ‘shower-uppers,’ and now we have an official title and a board,” Lewis says, amazed), they now have a membership of hundreds of tunesmiths and are planning summits, training sessions, and a national expansion outside of their home base of Los Angeles. 

Because songwriter unions are technically illegal under a Reagan-era labor ruling, Lewis and Hanley see themselves as filling a void by rallying songwriters together to speak out on issues such as streaming services’ royalty rates and Congress’s ongoing tussle with copyright law. “We don’t want to try and convince big fish to come swim in our little lake,” Lewis says. “We want to make the lake so awesome and important that people end up jumping in anyway.”

In the streaming era, where revenue sources are scattered across services and platforms, it’s more important than ever for songwriters to band together to advocate for financial stability. “The problem is that writers and artists are, at their core, renegades,” Hanley says. “We bristle at authority. But at the same time, what we’ve learned is that” — she pauses to warn of another metaphor — ”if you’re not at the table, you’re lunch. And we do have a seat at the table. No one ever really thinks about songwriters — even songwriters don’t think about songwriters! — so we need more leaders than followers. We have so much catching up to do.”

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