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30,000 Songwriters in the Making

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I'm a songwriter. I've also been an actor, a performer, a public speaker, a husband, a dad and -- currently -- the president and chairman of the board of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers). But I'll always be a songwriter, because creating music is a big part of how I know I'm alive.

I'm worried for the future of this craft. People who create music have more tools, technology and options at their disposal than ever before. Yet the question of how they can and will make a living from their art has become a flash-point for attack, particularly online. An "attack mentality" has taken root, springing up at any mention of how creators should be compensated when their works are used in digital channels. And speaking frankly, it's strangling the real dialogue that's sorely needed.

Before I explain more, let me share some of the background that shapes my perspective.

It's tough to express the joy of making a living from your art. Long before my current role as head of the Board, I was an ASCAP member. I started writing songs at 27 after my acting career fizzled. It was a classic case of "no" being a gift! I found my true calling. Over time, the royalties generated by my works helped me build a career for myself and a life for my family.

My words in the mouths of some very talented people (The Carpenters, Three Dog Night and Barbra Streisand, to name a few) put food on the table, bought shoes, made house payments. That income meant that once I committed to making music for a living, I never had to look back.

Thousands at the Door

Groups like ASCAP can shed a powerful light on cultural trends. I say that, because joining a performing rights organization is one of the first things you do when you decide you want to write music as a job, not a hobby.

Given this, I was blown away by a recent statistic.

More than 600 people per week are signing up with ASCAP. It's not a tough process and certainly not expensive. But becoming an ASCAP member takes time, energy and commitment -- all linked to a passionate dream.

Six hundred new members per week equals more than 30,000 self-declared, career-minded songwriters per year. And when hundreds of people -- week in and week out -- stand up and declare they want to make songwriting their life's work, there's something big happening in our culture.

These aspiring songwriters are diverse in every way. They represent every state, every age, every musical genre. The common thread is simple: there's music in their hearts and they want to share it.

And these weren't the only stats that caught my eye. When you look at the data ASCAP uses to track musical performances for its members, it's clear that more music is being performed, more often, in more places, than ever before.

Sounds like good news for those 30,000 hopefuls, right? I wish it were that simple. It's not. It's a paradox.

The number of people saying "I want to make songwriting my career" is growing. The use of music is growing. Technology is giving us new tools and opening new doors. The world changed with the birth of the Internet, providing a wealth of opportunity for music to be enjoyed in new and exciting ways. But if these technologies are just enablers for taking music without any means for compensation, the chance for future songwriters to make a decent living is in serious jeopardy.

You've heard the arguments: "Information wants to be free." "Copyright laws are too restrictive." "No one wants to pay for content online." "It's consumers uploading the content, not our business." "The new business model is free, so figure out how to adapt."

Many arguments are a lot more nuanced than these. But a similar theme cuts across all of them: getting paid for the use of creative work you make and own somehow isn't relevant (or enforceable) in the digital era.

I'd be lying if I said this doesn't worry me.

Trading the "Lynch Mob" for Dialogue

What's most troubling is the lack of civility and actual communication when it comes to discussing these issues. A lynch mob mentality too often drowns out productive dialogue.

A growing number of creative people -- those talking from experience as songwriters or performing artists -- are speaking up. They're sharing legitimate perspectives on why taking content and ignoring copyright hurts those creating the music more than anyone else.

The list of these talented, respected and often critically-admired individuals constantly grows. Check out the thoughts of folks like Billy Bragg, Prince, Lily Allen, Bono or Krist Novoselic. Reach back to Metallica's stance at the dawn of Napster. (And it's not just songwriters or performing artists talking; digital pioneer, Jaron Lanier, makes many similar points in his new book, You Are Not a Gadget).

Sadly the typical online response is vicious. Vitriol flows freely in blog comments and on Twitter. Ultimately it doesn't matter if nine out of 10 music fans might agree Prince is a genius and applaud his long history of supporting creators' rights. Once you step out against digital piracy, you get treated like an online pariah. These days, it takes an act of courage to share a point of view that opposes the "it's free, deal with it" mentality. That makes no sense. And it does nothing for our culture, long term.

I'm talking from experience. As an organization, ASCAP takes a lot of heat online from those who aren't fans of copyright. In reality, ASCAP is just the sum of its members, all of whom are individuals and music creators with a lot on the line in these debates.

My point is that we -- all of us who make or love music -- desperately need real, open dialogue. And we desperately need to find a common ground. I don't intend to come off as "Pollyanna," but I'm sure that common ground exists. It's time for us as a society to come to terms with the urgent and real need to find it.

New rules are being written -- rules that will determine how creative work like songwriting and music composition will be compensated in the future. It's a "now or never" moment. The stakes are high.

Those hopeful music creators -- 600 per week, 30,000 per year -- are my touchstones. These people are taking a major leap of faith to try to make their art their life. I want the question of what their future holds to have a positive answer. It's about turning today's paradox into something closer to consensus. That consensus doesn't have to be perfect or total. But it does have to affirm the limitless value music brings to our lives -- as well as the value we owe to those who make it, in return.

Paul Williams is an Oscar, Grammy and Golden Globe winning Hall of Fame songwriter. "We've Only Just Begun," "Rainy Days and Mondays," "You and Me Against the World," "An Old Fashioned Love Song," "I Won't Last a Day Without You" and "Let Me Be The One" are among his timeless standards. He is the President and Chairman of the Board of ASCAP (the American Society of Composers, Authors & Publishers), a 95-year-old membership association of over 370,000 U.S. composers, songwriters, lyricists and publishers covering every conceivable musical genre. As a performing rights organization, ASCAP handles royalties for the public performances of its members' copyrighted musical works.