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Rep. Rashida Tlaib Wants to Make Sure Musicians Are Actually Paid for Their Music

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is calling on her colleagues to ensure that musicians can actually make a living from their music. On Tuesday, July 26, the Michigan Democrat circulated a letter alerting her colleagues that she would be proposing a new Congressional Resolution to create a new royalty for streaming music. 

While streaming services have become the primary mode of music consumption, many artists have criticized the meager amounts of money they receive, especially as the vast majority of those payouts go to the biggest artists with the most streams. Rep. Tlaib’s resolution, according to a draft obtained by Rolling Stone, calls on the federal government to “establish a new statutory royalty program,” saying it’s the government’s duty “to provide musicians, whose recorded work is listened to on streaming music services, like Spotify, reasonable remuneration through a royalty payment earned on a per-stream basis.”

This new program would be overseen by the Copyright Royalty Board and SoundExchange, a non-profit rights management organization that Congress has already tasked with collecting royalties from certain kinds of digital music services, like satellite radio.

Tlaib’s resolution came out of a partnership between her office and the Union of Musicians and Allied Workers, which formed at the beginning of the pandemic. While the group has worked on a variety of issues, such as securing Covid-19 relief for musicians, it has gained particular attention for its Justice at Spotify campaign, calling on the streaming giant to start a baseline payout of one-cent-per-stream.

“When we met [with UMAW] it was really clear how efforts to pay musicians fairly for their work tied in to so many different threads of justice we were already working on,” Tlaib tells Rolling Stone in an email, adding: “We’ve worked with UMAW and artists to develop this resolution as a consciousness-builder and an organizing tool, to raise awareness amongst not only lawmakers but also just everyday streaming users about how when you listen to a song on Spotify and other platforms, the artist is being paid basically nothing. This is a step in the direction of creating a streaming royalty that pays musicians fairly for their labor.”

While the aim of the resolution is “to help educate Congress on the issue,” Tlaib said that progress is being made on actual legislation to establish this new streaming royalty program. Similar efforts to address inequities of streaming are already underway in places like France and the U.K., and as the resolution points out, the U.S. risks “falling behind in investing in musicians” if it doesn’t act.

(In France, this past May, record companies agreed to pay a minimum royalty rate to artists and performers for music streams; labels that distribute their own music, including the three majors, have to pay artists a minimum rate between 10 and 11 percent, while labels that use third-party distributors have to issue a rate between 11 and 13 percent. Last summer in the U.K., lawmakers called for significant reforms after a sweeping inquiry into the economics of streaming; while an initial proposal failed to win enough support, the issue remains on the table.)

“We have to stop taking art for granted. Many of the people who fill our lives with joy and creativity are also struggling to get by, and that’s in large part because of how corporations have stacked the deck to enrich themselves at the expense of the people creating that art,” Tlaib said.

Joey La Neve DeFrancesco, an organizer for UMAW who also makes music as La Neve and plays in the punk outfit Downtown Boys, said in a statement, “UMAW has been working toward legislation for over two years. Tech giants like Apple, Amazon, Spotify, and others have sent music industry profits skyrocketing, but working musicians aren’t seeing any of that money. It’s time that we get our fair share.”

As much as this resolution and possible future legislation is about helping all musicians across the U.S., Tlaib noted its particular relevance for her own Michigan district and its storied musical history: “Detroit is a global music capitol, giving the world Motown and techno and vital contributions to other genres like rock, jazz, and gospel, and we wanted to do something that honored and respected the incredible work of musicians in Detroit and across the country.”

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