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Valley Perspective | SECOND OPINION

Face the Music--Pay to Play

Berman and Moorhead defend the rights of songwriters against businesses that want to use their work for free.

August 18, 1996|MARC LITCHMAN | Marc Litchman is a political consultant from Studio City

From the studios in Burbank to the Pacoima home of Richie Valens to the coffeehouses and studios along the Boulevard to the Calabasas homes of writers and composers, the San Fernando Valley has been, for generations, the intellectual-capital capital of the world.

So it makes sense that two congressmen from the Valley have been defenders of a big business in the Valley--songwriting. Reps. Carlos Moorhead of Glendale, a Republican, and Howard Berman of Panorama City, a Democrat, are staving off a unique coalition of religious broadcasters, bars and restaurants that don't want to pay composers for their music.

As it is now, when you write a song, you are entitled to payment every time it is played in a profit-making establishment. Some restaurant and bar owners don't want to pay for the music you hear broadcast in their businesses; they say it's just background noise. The songwriters contend that their music is the product of their creativity and brings in customers. Otherwise, why do the restaurants and bars play it?

And the leading religious broadcasters are worse. They don't want to pay for music at all. Even Christian music!

Although the issue sounds arcane, it's life or death for the many songwriters who make the Valley their home. Even House Speaker Newt Gingrich involved himself in the issue this year, in an attempt to help political allies who helped fund the Republican "revolution."

A couple of things make this story unique. First, you'd expect Moorhead and Berman, staunch allies of the entertainment industry, to be oh-so-Hollywood. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Moorhead doesn't just represent Pasadena and Glendale, he is Pasadena and Glendale. This is a guy who's never out of his off-the-rack, dyed-in-the-wool-Republican blue suit with American flag lapel pin. Moorhead doesn't do lunch; he doesn't take meetings. Moorhead does the Kiwanis, the Chamber of Commerce, the Rose Parade.

Berman's much the same. Sure, his list of supporters is a who's who of the rich, famous and powerful in Hollywood. Producers, directors, agents, entertainment lawyers and songwriters. Where did he meet these people? Spago?

Hardly. He went to high school with them 40 years ago. Over the years, he's met many more through issues work--not Hollywood, but things like saving land in the Santa Monica Mountains and supporting Israel. Monday nights at Morton's with moguls? Check Art's Deli.

Valley songwriters were born under a lucky star. When Democrats controlled Congress, Berman was able to block broadcaster attempts to change, i.e. limit, payments to songwriters. When Republicans took control in 1994, Moorhead became chairman of the same panel. To this day, the Valley reps have been able to protect the rights of songwriters in the new Congress. The checkmate exists because songwriters need a multiyear extension of international copyright law. The Gingrich coalition has been able to block this. Likewise, songwriters have been able to block the coalition from dismantling the current payment system.

But it almost didn't work out that way. After the GOP took control of the House, Moorhead, because of his seniority, was poised to become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, a "juice" committee in Congress. But the radical right, led by Gingrich, wanted more of an ideologue and more of a player, someone who could squeeze contributions out of the special interests to fund the "revolution."

The new Republican leadership saw Moorhead as too bipartisan, too much of an honest broker. Instead, Gingrich appointed Rep. Tom Bliley (R-Va.), the tobacco industry's guardian. After 26 years in the minority, Moorhead was left standing at the altar by his own party.

But his loss was songwriters' gain. Moorhead's consolation prize was the chairmanship of the Judiciary subcommittee that oversees copyrights--no small issue to the entertainment industry, and songwriters in particular. Berman is a member of this subcommittee too, and the two are perfectly placed to hold off the coalition that seeks to change the way songwriters are paid.

Now here's where it gets interesting. That coalition is the Gingrich coalition: the same folks who dumped Moorhead from Energy and Commerce and the same folks who put Berman into the minority party for the first time. Many religious broadcasters, part of the radical right that is solidly behind the Gingrich wing, are the ones who don't want to pay for music used in religious broadcasts. They are joined by countless restaurants and bars--big Gingrich supporters who opposed Democratic attempts to raise the minimum wage. (Could it be that the speaker of the House, having caved on the minimum wage, wants to take care of his old friends, the restaurants and bars, on the songwriter issue?)

But not so fast. The anti-songwriter agenda has made little progress, in part because it has been caught up in bigger issues, but also thanks to what composers must see as divine intervention: moderate Republican Moorhead, liberal Democrat Berman, perfectly situated to stymie the Religious Right and the moneyed interests who fueled the revolution that gave both the boot.

Moorhead and Berman were able to bottle the bill up this year, but because the younger class of Gingrich Republicans are made up of the Religious Right and Hollywood wannabes--the Sonny Bono caucus--the future looks bleak.

Moorhead is set to retire, and Jim Sensenbrenner, the Wisconsin Republican who will likely take over the committee if the GOP retains control of the House, sides with the broadcasters, restaurants and bars. Berman's seat is safe and his influence in a Democratic House would be extensive. In a Republican House, without their savior Moorhead the Rotarian, the songwriters face an uphill struggle.

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