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Rosanne Cash testifies before House committee on fair pay for music artists

Rosanne Cash testified this morning before the House Judiciary Committee on behalf of the Americana Music Association (AMA).

Rosanne Cash
Photo by Theo Wargo

She represented musicians, songwriters and recording artists at the committee’s “Music Licensing Under Title 17 Part Two” hearings, at which she expressed her “the deep concerns all musicians share in the new digital economy” regarding fair compensation when their work is used by others.

“Rosanne is speaking for our creative community,” said AMA executive director Jed Hilly, in advance comments published along with Cash's prepared remarks by the American Songwriter website. In them, Cash recalled wanting to be a songwriter from the time she was a teen.

“I thought songwriting was an honorable, even noble profession,” she said. “I believe that songwriting is far beyond just self-expression, but a powerful means of service: We--songwriters and musicians--help people to understand themselves better by helping them to feel, through music. We shine light on the dark corners of the soul. We help reveal the nooks and crannies of our shared humanity. We provide a community for the language of the heart. As Hans Christian Andersen said, where words fail, music speaks.”

From the age of 18, Cash recounted, “I made myself an apprentice to some of the greats [songwriters],” resulting in enormous critical and commercial success as singer-songwriter and prose writer, and the opportunity to teach songwriting and the creative process at numerous colleges and universities.

“But the right beginnings, hard work and talent have never been enough in my business,” she said, noting that creating music generally requires a collaborative effort involving co-writers, producers, fellow musicians, recording engineers, background singers and various support people. Her acclaimed new album The River and The Thread, she offered as an example, took almost two years from conception to finished product, and is now six months into a promotion and touring schedule that will continue for another year.

“As a singer/songwriter, a recording artist, and a participant in many other parts of the music business, it seems painfully obvious that all creative people deserve fair compensation when their work is used by others,” Cash said. “For various reasons, that does not seem to be happening in the marketplace today, and we need a realignment.”

An avowed fan of new technology “both as a consumer and an artist,” Cash said that her enthusiasm for digital distribution was tempered by “the realization that these new business models are all cast against the backdrop of at least two decades of crushing digital piracy.” She noted how her father Johnny Cash had testified before the same committee in 1997 in support of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

“He told the committee then how challenging and dispiriting it was to find one of his biggest hits, ‘Ring of Fire,' being sold by someone in Slovenia on an illegal website, and that he hoped the DMCA would aid in solving that.”

Illegal websites, she said, have since “morphed into a multi-national juggernaut that threatens to decimate the livelihoods of all musicians, songwriters and performers.” She further noted that for an 18-month period ,there were nearly 600,000 streams of her songs on a popular subscription site, netting her a mere $114.

“I see young musicians give up their dreams every single day because they cannot make a living, they cannot survive doing the thing they most love, the thing they just might be on the planet to do.”

Cash cited such legal obstacles hindering creative people in the music business from making a fair living, including the lack of a public performance right for terrestrial radio play for sound recording artists, issues concerning how rates are set for compulsory and collective licenses songwriters offer for their work, and the lack of federal copyright protection for pre-1972 sound recordings.

“To put a personal perspective on this, if my father were alive today he would receive no payment for digital performances of his song ‘I Walk The Line,’ written and recorded in 1956, but anyone who re-­recorded that song would receive a royalty. This makes absolutely no sense, and is patently unfair.”

The bottom line, Cash concluded, is that copyright law “should not discriminate among different types of creative workers in affording them basic rights to compensation for their work. The creation and delivery of music to audiences requires the collaboration of many individuals and businesses including songwriters, performers, producers, music publishers and record labels. All of these individuals and entities should be appropriately compensated for their role in crafting and bringing work to audiences.”

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