I often reflect on how fortunate I am: I’ve had an amazing career, and I’m deeply grateful for the fans who continue to find joy in the music I wrote and recorded. But when it comes to the recorded music part of the business, I’ve been surprised to learn that federal law discriminates against older artists like me, including the icons who inspired me to follow my passion and make music.
Let me explain. When you hear “Sweet Caroline,” my hit from 1968, on internet radio, satellite radio or a music channel on cable TV, those services can withhold certain royalty payments thanks to an obscure quirk in federal copyright law that predates digital radio altogether.
Federal copyright law does not protect music recorded before 1972. Instead, “pre-’72” recordings are subject to a patchwork of state laws that amount to a legal obstacle course, both for artists like me and for digital radio services.
I have been fortunate to earn a living from touring and from the royalties I receive as a recording artist and songwriter through sales of vinyl, CDs and downloads — and, more recently, through on-demand streaming from digital services like Spotify and Apple Music.
But when my music is played on digital and satellite radio services, I receive a small amount of songwriting royalties, but no royalties as the recording artist.
It’s a ridiculous state of affairs. When these services play my original recordings of “Red Red Wine” (1968) and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” (1967), they aren’t required to pay a penny to me as the recording artist. Yet when great covers of those songs by UB40 and Urge Overkill are played on the very same services, those artists are paid, because their covers were recorded after 1972.
This bizarre quirk arose because, when Congress granted digital radio services a special federal license in the late 1990s, it covered only copyrighted recordings. Since sound recordings didn’t receive federal copyright protection until 1972, recordings made before 1972 are covered only under state law. As a result, some digital radio services have argued they were not required to pay for pre-’72 recordings at all. Years of litigation in state courts over the issue have inspired an effort to craft a solution that works for music creators and digital services alike.
If the law is left unchanged, countless great artists of the Motown era, the early days of rock ’n’ roll and the golden age of country may not earn royalties on many of their most omnipresent songs across digital radio. For some artists, those royalties could mean the difference between covering healthcare costs in retirement and spending their final years in poverty.
The issue hit home for me personally this year. In January, I reluctantly retired from touring on the advice of my doctors. It was a difficult but necessary decision. Touring takes a physical toll, and after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, it was an element of my career I needed to let go, much as I love it.
Artists and musicians my age should be paid from profit-making services like these. I’m far more fortunate than most, I realize, but what about others? What about the icons of America’s musical heritage who inspire all of us, generation after generation, and whose creations enable these services to exist?
Fortunately, a bill in Congress called the Music Modernization Act would correct this inequity. The legislation would also update woefully arcane rules governing how songwriters are compensated and ensure that producers are rewarded for their contributions to sound recordings.
The House unanimously passed the bill, which is now pending in the full Senate. As of this writing, more than 70 senators have co-sponsored the legislation. I’m counting on Sens. Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer to schedule a vote in the Senate and push this bill across the finish line.
It’s past time Congress address this issue and fix the pre-’72 loophole by passing the Music Modernization Act. We owe it to the icons and legacy recording artists who have given us so much, and upon whose shoulders I stand.