Let’s acknowledge this right off the top: we live in an age where a large contingent of the population has internalized the idea that music, songs, albums, etc., are fully “free.” Nobody likes to side with, say, the RIAA, while they’re filing lawsuits against 12 year olds with Limewire (or its more current equivalent). But it’s a lot easier to understand that there’s something not quite right about radio stations, whether on the internet or over the actual airwaves, getting rich off work product created by others, without sharing any of that cash with those creators. This isn’t about Susy in her bedroom downloading Bieber to her phone. It’s about corporations created on a foundation built by musicians, sucking up venture capital and growing ever larger while pretending those musicians are mere abstractions.

The non-profit group SoundExchange is absolutely vital to the efforts to allow artists to make a living through their music. It’s more than a political action group that lobbies Washington, though it does that and those efforts shouldn’t be minimized. Nor is it a litigation machine, a la the RIAA. First and foremost, SoundExchange enforces the laws on performance royalties against the big streaming services, Pandora, Sirius, and the like, as well as TV music channels (think those channels in the low thousands with names like “Party Time!” and “Oldies”.) The services pay SoundExchange, and SoundExchange pays the copyright holders – usually, the artists or their record labels. The SoundExchange website has some great explainers on what it is they do, including an infographic which people love these days, so please click around.

The legal background on all of this is kind of fascinating, at least for copyright attorneys, but in essence it turns on a series of statutes and case law interpreting what a “public performance” is. Only in the mid-90s did copyright holders of music become entitled to royalty payments when their music is played through a digital medium. The existing law at the time, primarily the Copyright Act of 1976, introduced a confusing mélange of rules related to composition and performance separately, and applied only to what we now call “terrestrial radio.” Two laws passed during the Clinton administration expanded and modified these rights, to try and head off the fear (unusually prescient for government) that music would move from the CDs in record stores to the world wide web.

Were these laws successful? To a point, though they leave much to be desired. (The gulf between composers and performers is far too wide, for one.) But they do represent a rare victory for copyright holders and therefore, for artists.

I mentioned that SoundExchange also engages in some lobbying, which of course is something of a dirty word these days but is nonetheless necessary. You can read more about these efforts in the latest SoundExchange newsletter, but I’d like to highlight one particularly important recent effort to influence federal legislation pertaining to the rights of artists and creators, one that concerns the earlier-referenced divide in law between terrestrial radio and web-based broadcasting services.

The misleadingly named Local Radio Freedom Act would ensure that no one disrupts the current practice of radio stations (read: huge media conglomerates) not having to pay royalties to either composers or performers of music played on those stations. The fact that this bill, which would simply enshrine a practice already in existence, is even being pushed at all is actually something of a good sign: it means that the politicians heavily supported by media companies are worried that the “free music” gravy train will be stopped at some point, probably by competing federal regulation. Make no mistake, this is a high-stakes battle. Success by SoundExchange and its supporters in defeating the LRFA makes payment of musicians for the playing of their music on terrestrial radio – still a huge, huge industry even in these digital times – a much more realistic possibility. How simple can I put this? It means more money for artists, less for media corps.

So yeah, SoundExchange is a good organization supporting a great cause and engaged in an important fight. Read on and learn more, and if you’re an artist or creator who’d like to understand more about how copyright law effects your ability to earn a living, talk to an attorney who specializes in just that area.