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Opinion: Creating a Viable Future for Country Music

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Erika Goldring, Getty Images

Kristian Bush is an American recording artist, songwriter, and producer best known as one-half of the country music duo Sugarland.

It is impossible to imagine my life without music, and I bet it’s hard to imagine yours without it, too. Whether you play an instrument, sing in a church choir, or just like to crank up your car radio to your favorite song, music is a language you share with everyone around you. And like I always say: Life is better with a soundtrack.

I grew up in Sevierville, Tennessee, the same hometown as Dolly Parton. My mother enrolled me in a Suzuki violin program in Knoxville when I was four, and I made my musical debut opening for Dolly at the local Bush Beans Jamboree. At the age of twelve, I picked up a guitar, and after moving to Atlanta for college, I made my dream of becoming a recording artist come true in both the rock and country worlds, first with Billy Pilgrim, then with Sugarland and my own solo career.

Since I signed my first record deal in the early ‘90s, the tools we use to make records have streamlined the process to match the instant gratification of the digital world, effectively democratizing creation for everyone. With the push of a button, a young artist can record and distribute their song literally around the world in an instant. However, over the past three decades, I have also watched that same digital revolution present a growing challenge. I was able to build a life-long career as a working musician who can support a family and employ a great team of musicians and support staff. But, I am concerned as I watch that opportunity slip out of reach for so many of the talented artists following behind me.

The great American melting pot has given musicians a wealth of inspiration — from Delta blues to Chicago jazz, from Appalachian bluegrass to the rock of the Pacific Northwest — and collaboration across cultures has led to immense growth in musical styles, preferences and techniques. The spirit of American innovation has likewise led to an incredible shift in technology as it relates to the creation and consumption of music. I grew up listening to my parents’ album collection on vinyl, and then my own tape collection or the local radio station through the headphones of a Walkman. Now, I have what seems like every song ever written available at my fingertips thanks to an iPhone and streaming apps like Spotify and Apple Music. However, while music technology has advanced, the laws governing it remain stuck in the past.

I’ve been a Recording Academy member since I was 22, and served on the board of the Recording Academy Atlanta Chapter for the last three terms. Advocacy has always been a big part of my membership experience. This week, a coalition of more than 1,600 music creators from all 50 states will meet with their local member of Congress as part of the Recording Academy’s District Advocate day to promote legislative solutions to current law. Support behind these important music issues is the highest it’s ever been, and now is the time for the 115th Congress to act. As our representatives seriously consider licensing reform, we are working to ensure creators are part of that conversation.

One great way this can be accomplished is through H.R. 1836: The Fair Play Fair Pay Act of 2017. Through this bill, artists and labels would be paid royalties for music played on the radio, just as they are in other major countries around the globe. In addition, this bill seeks to bring home more than $200 million in taxable income left overseas, because it’s not just musicians who are missing out on compensation — their communities are, too. Congress must also address below-market payments for songwriters and record producers, which are gutting the infrastructure of our industry. The music business is built like an ecosystem. When one part suffers, the whole thing risks collapse.

I got my first record deal out of college, after Atlanta peers like R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls blazed a trail for me. Legendary label heads like Ahmet Ertegun and Luke Lewis provided guidance and wisdom as I grew my own career. Now, I want to guide and advocate for up-and-coming artists to ensure they are given the recognition and compensation that they deserve for their work. If we can’t find a modern way to reward the contributions they are providing our society and culture, we may lose out on something great. And as music industry laws lag behind economic reality, it’s hard to imagine a future where anyone will see this industry as a viable career option. Remember: Your favorite song might not be written yet. We can’t afford to lose out on the soundtrack future artists will create.

For more information about how to get involved, visit Grammy.com/Advocacy.

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