It only takes an act of Congress to keep good music going

This column originally appeared in the Champaign News-Gazette October 23, 2011

Reproduced by permission of The News-Gazette, Inc. - Permission does not imply endorsement.

My friend, the late, great Muscle Shoals songwriter Robert Byrne, once told me, “A hit song is an act of God.” I’m glad I didn’t under­stand the full ramifications of that as a dreamy-eyed, 11-year old boy growing up in rural Illinois. It’s good I didn’t know it when I was 18, working day jobs and playing “Proud Mary” in crummy bars til 2 a.m., and it’s a blessing I didn’t “get it” when I was in my 20s, dragging my guitar and my songs all over Los Angeles. Or I might have fal­tered.

I was 35, freshly moved to Nash­ville when I had my first brush with a miracle.

My first cut turned out to be my first hit. It wasn’t a big No. 1 hit. It quietly went to No. 8 before it dis­appeared from the charts. But it was a huge hit to me. The first time I heard it on the radio I had to pull off the side of Old Hickory Boule­vard or I might have wrecked my old Honda Civic. It represented 25 years of songs that went from hor­rible to bad to tolerable to OK to pretty good to being the right song ... in the right place ... at the right time.

For a few years there, in the ’90s, I had found my place. Neither I nor most of my peers got rich, but mostly we made enough to hold on until the next miracle could happen.

That was before the Internet boom. It didn’t exist when I was learning my craft. We went to the record store and bought records, or CDs. In the last 12 years an amaz­ing technological revolution has changed all that. It’s exciting in that young songwriters and artists can find an audience for their music that they couldn’t have reached before. It’s an amazing and truly wonderful thing.

But there are those who take advantage of it to the detriment of the very people, with stories just like mine, who provide the con­tent. For every legitimate site like iTunes, there are many more ille­gal, overseas sites that blatantly steal on an alarming scale.

I know that everyone has heard or read about how piracy of intel­lectual property has hurt the music business.  I also know it’s hard to generate much sympathy for the rich and famous stars who have been our spokespeople. But there are so many more people with names you’ll never know, whose very jobs depend on some kind of protection.

There is legislation currently before the U.S. House of Repre­sentatives called the “PROTECT IP (Intellectual Property) Act” that cracks down on illegal foreign web­sites that offer unauthorized music. Yes, it will benefit the people with names and faces you recognize (as it should), but it will have a far-reaching positive effect on many more who work in our industry. The assistants, backup bands, record­ing engineers, bus drivers, security guards, song pluggers, tape copy guys, A&R people, studio musicians — just to name a few — may just be able to keep their jobs.

Not to mention the songwriters. Hugh Prestwood wrote a brilliant song called “The Song Remembers When” that reminds every one of us that songs are like time machines. We all have songs that resonate in each of us — that take us back to places and times that can still make you smile, or bring a tear to your eye.