On Classics Act Sen Wyden Taps Into Portland’s Peculiar Anti-Union Rich Man’s Progressivism


Sen Ron Wyden shown here when he was the trombone player for”The Shyllz” an early 80’s Palo Alto new wave band. 

A few months ago I came across an article on Portland, Oregon’s mixed history with labor unions despite it long being a bastion of progressivism. Andrew Bulkeley writing in Oregon Business in 2017:

“But even as social responsibility goes mainstream, organized labor remains an outlier among many [Oregon] companies that self-identify as progressive enterprises. To be sure, unions have something of a foothold in government and legacy industries — the grocers QFC and Kroger, manufacturers like Vigor Industrial and Daimler Trucks North America. Among many young companies and new business models, however, the union presence is tenuous at best.”

Portland’s Nike has long had its union problems. But it’s vague commitments to diversity and support of milquetoast social issues hardly make it a bastion of progressivism and is thus not the perfect case study.

Perhaps the more illustrative story of progressive Portland’s anti-unionism concerns the city’s beloved Powells Books.  In the 1990s the book shop management and progressive democratic owner Michael Powell fought a decade long battle against its employees efforts (and right) to unionize.  Even today Sontz the CEO of Powells Books still seems bothered by the fact her employees are unionized. In the same article in Oregon Business she says:

“[A union] slows you down,” Sontz says. “It makes you less entrepreneurial.”

Unions also tend to give workers a living wage so they can say support a family. Or own a home. Something increasingly difficult in Portland. Workers could easily argue that Powells books could be “more entrepreneurial” by paying its CEO less.  Use that money to invest in new technology. Ah ,but it’s always been so much easier to blame those pesky union workers for the company’s woes. Union bashing is usually the “look like you’re doing something” strategy when you don’t actually have a management strategy.

Sen Ron Wyden seems to be following in this peculiar Portland tradition.  He seems to have issues with pre-1972 performers (music workers) and the American Federation of Musicians and whether digital services (the bosses) have to pay them at all. And yes you read that right.

Specifically, Sen Ron Wyden is trying to sink a bill (The Classics Act) that is designed to plug a loophole in the interaction between state and federal copyright law that allows big companies like Google, Spotify, and Sirius to avoid paying royalties to performers and union side musicians that had the misfortune to record before Feb 15 1972. This is particularly galling because his opposition to the act would seem to benefit one company more than any other:  Sirius XM.

Sirius XM market cap is currently more than 30 plus billion dollars and last reported net profits running at 22% of revenue. This is a company with no other satellite radio competitors. It relies almost exclusively on licenses imposed on music rights holders by the federal government.  And the regulations that govern the setting of royalties actually mandates below market rates. Its net profit margins are quite extraordinary when you consider it is stagnant business.  Rent seeking and crony capitalism, two great tastes that taste great together!

And this is not Wyden’s first rodeo. He can’t be forgiven for not understanding the issues.  It is a pattern. This is his second attempt to cut pay to performers in a way that benefits digital services. The second time in less than a decade! In 2012 he proposed the Orwellian named Internet Radio Fairness act which would have slashed pay to performers up to 70%.   We’re not talking a minor adjustment to federally mandated rates.

But it doesn’t end there. Protecting the billionaires that own these digital companies is so important to Wyden, he has just introduced a kind of “poison pill” bill (ACCESS Act) that seems specifically designed to gut the CLASSICS legislation (Contrary to what Wyden claims It reduces existing copyright terms on many songs originally protected by state copyright laws).

I often wonder what it is Wyden has against musicians? Is it like that old SNL skit which “reveals” biographer Albert Goldman’s hatred of John Lennon and Elvis stems from the fact he’d once been The Beatles trombone player. (Spoiler Alert) Elvis came to a Beatles show and convinced John Lennon to fire him.

Finally referring to an organized multi-company effort to set performer prices at zero as a “loophole” is very generous to Wyden. It more like price fixing. (Where is that FTC investigation?)  Further there was no loophole in copyright law until Sirius and Pandora decided to stop paying the royalty in 2012.  They have litigated and appealed ever since to keep the loophole open. More ethical (and better run) companies like Apple continue to pay this royalty. I assume because like most reasonable people, they look at the law and see that congress never intended there be a “gotcha” loophole. It’s more likely Sirius and Pandora will lose their cases eventually.  So Wyden is not just for preserving a loophole, he’s trying to protect companies that are likely breaking the law, and screwing unions at the same time.

Now that’s a very peculiar kind of “progressivism” isn’t it? Welcome to Portland.

P.S. BTW does anyone know if all those Silicon Valley data centers out in The Dalles hire union workers?  Cause usually Silicon Valley is quite anti-union.  But boy do they love Ron Wyden! 

About Dr. David C Lowery

Platinum selling singer songwriter for the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven; platinum selling producer; founder of pitch-a-tent records; founder Sound of Music Studios; platinum selling music publisher; angel investor; digital skeptic; college lecturer and founder of the University of Georgia Terry College Artists' Rights Symposium.

2 thoughts on “On Classics Act Sen Wyden Taps Into Portland’s Peculiar Anti-Union Rich Man’s Progressivism

  1. “Specifically, Sen Ron Wyden is trying to sink a bill (The Classics Act) that is designed to plug a loophole in the interaction between state and federal copyright law that allows big companies like Google, Spotify, and Sirius to avoid paying royalties to performers and union side musicians that had the misfortune to record before Feb 15 1972.”

    Is that correct? My impression was that Wyden’s bill simply makes all recordings subject to the same copyright, whether pre-1972 or post-1972, specifically via federal law (not state law). Wouldn’t that mandate providers like Sirius XM to pay – unless there’s some other provision I am not seeing?

    • Well. If that were purely the case he would just support classics. The Access bill isn’t a serious bill. It’s complicated. It would end up shortening some terms. That would in effect be a taking. Unconstitutional. It’s just a stink bomb so he can reject classics.

Comments are closed.