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Music Modernization Act Passes, Despite Music Industry Infighting

U.S. Senate unanimously passes three-pronged bill that will update music copyright for digital age

WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 18:  Musicians Jimi Westbrook and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town perform onstage during Grammys on the Hill Awards Dinner on April 18, 2018 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage for The Recording Academy)

The music industry has badgered Congress to consider the Music Modernization Act for years, and musicians like Little Big Town's Jimi Westbrook and Kimberly Schlapman performed on Capitol Hill earlier this year to show their support.

Paul Morigi/WireImage for The Recording Academy/Getty

UPDATE: The House of Representatives unanimously approved the Senate’s version of the Music Modernization Act Tuesday, Billboard reports. The legislation now needs President Donald Trump’s signature before it can become law.

Neil Portnow, the president and CEO of the Recording Academy, said in a statement, “The trajectory of the Music Modernization Act has shown the power of music creators to effect real change. From its unanimous approval in the House of Representatives in April, to its passage in the Senate last week, we have seen unprecedented advocacy from the music community. With today’s final passage of the bill in the House, we are one step away from the most sweeping music copyright reform since the 8-track tape era, and we look forward to this being signed into law.”

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The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Music Modernization Act Tuesday evening, despite weeks — or, by some measures, years — of internal music industry turmoil that made the bill’s future seem highly uncertain.

Aimed at updating music copyright laws for the digital era, the MMA in the form it’s being passed will accomplish three key things: Making sure songwriters and artists receive royalties on songs recorded before 1972; allocating royalties for music producers; and updating licensing and royalty rules for streaming services to pay rights-holders in a more streamlined way. In short, music-makers will get more money.

Music rights groups and executives in the industry are largely cheering the news. The Recording Academy’s CEO Neil Portnow praised the passage as “a historic moment” while National Music Publishers Association president David Israelite called it a “true step forward for fairness,” and several other groups such as the RIAA, ASCAP, BMI, and SoundExchange have all issued statements of approval.

But the MMA has not been viewed with such glowing regard across the entire industry. Earlier this year, performing rights organization SESAC made a fuss about an aspect of the bill and started a fight among songwriters, artists and various music rights groups before eventually backing down. Another major industry player, satellite radio giant SiriusXM, has voiced its dissent from the start over a provision that requires the company to pay a new set of royalties on pre-1972 recordings. SiriusXM has argued the provision is unfair, given that terrestrial radio companies do not have that rule imposed on them. On Monday, more than 150 songwriters and artists, including Paul McCartney and John Legend, signed a letter condemning SiriusXM’s disapproval and accusing it of selfishly holding up a bill from which the rest of the industry would benefit. SiriusXM said in a statement Tuesday that it came to an agreement with other industry players to pay half of the performance royalties for pre-1972 recordings, allowing the bill to move forward for unanimous vote.

“With this bill, we are one step closer to historic reform for our badly outdated music laws,” Orrin Hatch, the U.S. senator most responsible for pushing the complicated bill through Congress, said in a statement. That the MMA is a boon to creators in the music industry is true. However, the long and internally contentious path to make just three modest changes to copyright rules highlights one reason why more hasn’t been done.

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