Bart Herbison, a native of Paris, Tennessee, took the NSAI reins in 1997 and has helped the trade group reach its present day membership of over 5,000 aspiring and professional songwriters from the United States and around the world. Heading the world’s largest non-profit songwriter organization requires leadership, but the challenges of the past 10 years—the digital decade—have truly upped the ante. Regardless, the Nashville Songwriters Association International has grown to include over 165 local chapters plus an advisory group called the California Songwriters Association. The groups are dedicated to protecting songwriter rights.
Herbison’s political expertise stems from over 10 years of hands-on government experience. He worked for TN Governor Ned McWherter and U.S. Rep. Bob Clement as Campaign Manager, Press Secretary and Chief Administrative Officer before moving to Music Row. That experience has helped forge an aggressive team that frequently travels to DC to visit and educate Washington lawmakers about songwriter issues.
Some of Herbison’s NSAI accomplishments include purchase of the Music Mill studios as NSA headquarters in 2005; passage of the Songwriters Capital Gains Tax Equity Act in 2006; acquisition of the world-famous Bluebird Cafe in 2008; and creation of the first ever Copyright Infringement Group Insurance for songwriters and music publishers in 2009.
NEKST: What’s causing the copyright space to be so active?
Bart Herbison: I was quoted in the Tennessean recently saying, I’ve seen more movement in the last 16 weeks than the past 16 years. Congress and the courts always lag behind technology, but the cake is finally baked and many of the issues we’ve been talking about for years are finally getting everyone’s attention. Everyone means Congress, the Department of Justice, the U.S. Copyright office and the marketplace.
NEKST: Have the issues become easier to understand?
Bart Herbison: Today there’s more focus. Two years ago there was a big train across the tracks which was the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PiPA). It distracted all other agendas and people took a political beating on SOPA especially after 35 million internet users protested against it to congress. It was the only time I’m aware of that the Obama administration and the Tea Party actively worked together to stop a bill. But today I credit House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Maria Pallante, the 12th U.S. Register of Copyrights, for re-igniting copyright conversation in D.C.
NEKST: Are Consent Decrees and the Songwriter Equity Act (SEA) the main ideas on the table?
Bart Herbison: Yes. Mr. Goodlatte is conducting a thoughtful process of meetings and hearings which might result in two options—introducing a comprehensive rewrite of the copyright act himself, or changing individual pieces of legislation. His actions will likely depend upon what the Justice Department does early next year regarding Consent Decrees. The desired result for songwriters is to put all aspects of how royalties are determined and collected into the free marketplace. We hope that Mr. Goodlatte will extend the SEA to perhaps include a major overhaul of section 115 of the copyright law.
NEKST: NSAI is in favor of consent decrees going away?
Bart Herbison: Yes we are, or bold dramatic changes to adapt to the marketplace. This fiasco of leaving part of your songs in or out of ASCAP or BMI makes no sense to anybody and is purely in response to the pre-WWII Consent Decree rules we are still under. Consent Decrees also prohibit ASCAP and BMI from collecting mechanicals. If a substantial portion of performance and mechanical royalties were collected by the same entity it might produce greater efficiencies and reduce collection costs for rights holders.
NEKST: Why is navigating the political winds so complicated?
Bart Herbison: There are always nuances that do not precisely align amongst all the stakeholders such as the broadcasters, digital providers and others. For example, some people at the Judiciary Subcommittee hearing a few weeks ago called for omnibus legislation (taking all the individual bills and crafting a grand solution dealing with issues collectively). They proposed combining the pre-1972 issue, the SEA and re-introducing the Broadcast Royalty for record labels from terrestrial radio which NSAI supported, but didn’t make it through congress last time. Now NSAI is not necessarily against that, but it may muddy the waters and not be politically expedient. Not everyone supports all those various bills. We believe this is the first time since 1909 that songwriters have had a true focus and opportunity to change the onerous rules we have been under so if it happened today we’d want SEA to be considered separately.
NEKST: In other words the more ideas you lump into one bundle the harder it is to get supporters?
Bart Herbison: It depends upon the bundle of course, but yes.
NEKST: How soon might these changes take place?
Bart Herbison: The attention and focus that songwriters have received over the past few weeks has everyone excited, but I don’t expect anything to happen this year. It will be a 2-4 year process. The entire House of Representatives is up for election this year and and one third of the Senate meaning Mr. Goodlatte has this year and, if the Republicans maintain the House of Representatives, four more years as Chairman. There is also a possibility that the Senate changes hands from Democrat to Republican. Regardless, after the Justice Department speaks on Consent Decrees I expect we’ll get some action.
NEKST: Pandora claims it’s paying out over 60% of its revenue in royalties which is a much higher percentage than terrestrial or satellite radio pays. Is it the split between songwriters and labels that makes it unfair?
Bart Herbison: Labels and artists get 12 to 14 times more of those royalties than songwriters and publishers because labels were able to do a marketplace deal while PROs were waiting on a rate court. However, that big disparity is going to change. But let’s be honest, that’s revenue as Pandora defines it and the service hasn’t been trying to sell ads or aggressively update its model. Unlike Spotify, Pandora has simply tried to get as many new signups as possible to sell stock. Pandora CEO Tim Westergren has personally cashed in more stock in 2013 than the entire amount paid to songwriters and publishers.
NEKST: What are the most promising changes impacting consumers?
Bart Herbison: I’m smiling at the marketplace. Several cell and music providers are offering special pricing and/or free music subscription bundles with the purchase of your phone. There are more cell phones in the US than people and if a substantial percentage of those were subscribers at $9.99/mo. it would generate enough money to fairly compensate the digital community, performing rights and everyone. In fact, a decade from now we could be experiencing the healthiest music industry ever. That free, or seemingly free subscription, as part of your monthly phone bill, could be the marketplace’s way of ending piracy too. I mean, why would anyone illegally download anything when they have access to everything?
NEKST: What should we all be doing?
Bart Herbison: There’s an open period until Aug. 6 to file comments with the Justice Department regarding consent decrees. (Click HERE) Now is the time to get your thoughts on record because they are listening. The staffs are eager for the smallest detail and the have provided seven questions to help focus response.