I was born in South Philly in 1943. By elementary school, I was singing on street corners and hanging out at a nearby store with a record machine. The Dells, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Sam Cooke. Their voices are the soundtrack of my early days on the south side – the place that is still, and will always be, my home.
Music has always called to me on a spiritual level. I have dedicated my life and work to the craft. When I met my creative partner, Leon Huff, more than 50 years ago, our futures were from that moment fused. Together, we have written and produced 175 gold and platinum records. We’ve played roles in thousands of others. The product of our work, and the birth of the “Philly Sound,” has not only helped shape music as we know it today, it has lifted up the African American community in Pennsylvania and beyond. It has contributed to our culture and the identity of the nation.
The impact our songs have had, and the role our work has played in empowering the African American community, is a driving purpose in my life. Music brings our lives into clear and vivid color. And by virtue of our work, so do music creators.
June is African American Music Appreciation Month, a designation first made in the nation’s capital almost 40 years ago to celebrate our community’s achievements. However, the elected officials serving in Washington today would do well to also recognize that music provides a livelihood and source of financial security for those of us who create it. Instead, the law has discriminated against us for decades, creating a second-class workforce for music creators under U.S. law.
The inequality and injustices written into the music licensing system force us to take less compensation for our work than it is actually worth in the marketplace. The law gives favor and a special treatment to certain corporate interests that use our work over the contributions and work of as the creators of the music.
Congress is on the verge of changing this dynamic. In April, the House of Representatives passed a bill called the Music Modernization Act by an extraordinary vote of 415-0.
This bill would finally correct long-standing discrimination against artists who recorded music before Feb. 15, 1972. Currently, music we recorded prior to this arbitrary date is not entitled to a cent in compensation under federal law when it is played on digital streaming services or satellite radio. That status applies to some of the most iconic recordings in American music. Songs like “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time)” by the Delfonics and “You Are Everything” by the Stylistics. Anything recorded after that date does generate compensation for the artists who created them. Pre-‘72 music pioneers from Pennsylvania who have helped shape the soul, rock, R&B, rap, classical, jazz, blues, hip-hop, neo-soul and country genres we know today deserve more respect.
The Music Modernization Act would also end an unfair provision that forces music creators to subsidize three select companies that profit from playing our music at a rate that is by law set below fair market value. In just the last decade, that special discount has added up to more than $1 billion, straight out of the pockets of music creators. The beneficiaries of this special status are established corporations that control the satellite and cable music markets. The special rate allows some of them to pay artists about half of what other services pay, and they use the competitive advantage given to them by Congress 20 years ago to block competition and widen their profit margins further on the backs of music creators and their families who deserve to make a fair living for their work.
For the sake of fairness and justice, we urge Sens. Bob Casey and Pat Toomey to join our House delegation by leading the U.S. Senate to pass the Music Modernization Act. Congress has the opportunity to put American workers above corporate interests – including the thousands of us here in Pennsylvania whose livelihood is making music.
Kenny Gamble is a local community advocate, co-chair of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.