The Music Modernization Act — the landmark, bipartisan bill 15 years in the making to update music copyright law for the digital age — recently celebrated its first birthday. More so than any other piece of music legislation in the past generation, the act provided hope that the industry’s most significant concerns over payments and royalties would finally receive closure.
Today, however, uncertainty still surrounds the South Carolina music scene, particularly for the state’s performers and the businesses that play their music. Thankfully, Sen. Lindsey Graham, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has taken note and is working to fill in the gaps.
On Nov. 1, Graham sent a letter to the Department of Justice inquiring about its review of its antitrust agreements, known as consent decrees, that help keep monopolies in check.
A lobbying campaign from these monopolies — the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), which combined control the rights to almost every song — appears to be the reasoning behind the Justice Department’s openness for change. One thing is for certain, though: If the Justice Department chooses to alter these decrees significantly, it could lead to hundreds of South Carolina businesses like mine having no choice but to raise prices and cut back on support for local artists.
Performers have spoken out against the Justice Department making any changes to the decrees, as have plenty of South Carolina businesses. My establishment, Stems & Skins in North Charleston, teamed up with more than 12 others from across our state to draw awareness to the extent of the problem. Larger organizations, including the South Carolina Brewers Guild, South Carolina Retail Association, South Carolina Restaurant & Lodging Association, and South Carolina Broadcasters Association, have sounded the alarm as well.
The issue is complicated, but also very simple. Businesses — from concert halls to bars and restaurants — have to pay licensing fees to ASCAP and BMI for the rights to provide music.
While the Justice Department is keeping them in check now, should the agency relax its guardrails, these two monopolies would have no limit on what they could charge for licenses.
Businesses’ operational expenses would balloon. To make up for the added costs, some local establishments would have to raise prices on consumers and cut back on the number of live acts they host. The end result could be higher prices on alcohol at bars and less opportunities for up-and-coming artists to be seen and heard all around. The next James Brown or Brennan Lassiter could go unnoticed by South Carolina, all so two monopolies can reap even more revenue.
Sen. Graham is working to ensure the Justice Department resolves this issue reasonably. As Graham noted in his Nov. 1 letter, his committee is watching the Justice Department process closely. Earlier this year, he convened the representatives of the music monopolies and the businesses that pay them to discuss possible alternatives should the Justice Department decide to upend the market by changing these long-term decrees. Given the Music Modernization Act took more than a decade to enact, there certainly are no simple solutions here, but Sen. Graham should be applauded for working to protect South Carolina’s local businesses and music performers.
The consent decrees have been working well since before anyone alive can remember. They are a key reason that South Carolina has such a vibrant music scene, and there is no reason they should not stay in place for the foreseeable future. As Graham understands, they provide the certainty that local performers and businesses need. The South Carolina music industry greatly appreciates his leadership on this issue.
Matt Tunstall is the co-owner of Stems & Skins in North Charleston.