Why Some Music Biz Insiders Are (Almost) Optimistic About Donald Trump's Presidency

Billboard

There may never have been a president more beloved by artists and the media business than Barack Obama, or a candidate who was criticized more vehemently by the same community than Donald Trump. Yet most policy executives believe that Obama was generally tough on the entertainment business -- and that Trump might be good for it.

"Obama was bad for music and copyright because he was very close to Google," says a Washington, D.C., insider. "The hope is that Trump will be better."

Few entertainment business lobbyists, who generally tend to be Democrats or moderate Republicans, had much enthusiasm for Trump's victory, and they spoke cautiously in the days following the election. But several say it presents an unexpected opportunity to regain their influence over the debate about copyright -- the biggest issue by far for music companies -- from such technology firms as Google, owner of YouTube, which favor looser protections. Generally speaking, the Obama administration promoted policies that favored tech at the expense of the media and entertainment sectors, including the Department of Justice's effort to make ASCAP and BMI engage in 100 percent licensing and the Federal Communication Commission's push to open the market for cable boxes.

"We hope that a new administration will be more fair to songwriters and will reduce the influence of massive tech companies like Google, who have had a stronghold in Washington," says National Music Publishers' Association CEO David Israelite.

At this early stage, not much is certain -- Trump hasn't taken a position on copyright, let alone many of the specific issues that affect the music business. But there are solid indications that he would support strong intellectual property laws: He criticized China in an August speech for the "rampant theft of intellectual property," and many of Trump's businesses involve licensing -- and trumpeting -- his name, which is protected by trademark law for some commercial uses. 

And while not a part of his policy toward media companies, Trump's tax plan ironically would help some of the artists and music executives who loudly protested against his candidacy. The Tax Policy Center has estimated that households in the top 0.1 percent, which have incomes of more than $3.7 million, would pay almost 15 percent less in taxes, while most Americans would get a one or two percent cut. 

Oddly for a president so beloved in the music business -- Obama speaks about music eloquently, has released Spotify playlists, and has hosted musicians of all ages and genres, from Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder to Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean, at the White House -- music lobbyists say they got a cool reception from his administration. This could be due to the president's unusually close relationship with Silicon Valley: Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt was a member of Obama's transition team, Google execs visited the White House more than those from any other company, and several took jobs in the administration. (Media business lobbyists aren't opposed to this ideologically, of course; they'd like the same relationships.)

If his campaign is any guide, Trump feels very differently. The president-elect has criticized Google as being biased against him (without any real evidence) and said, "Amazon is getting away with murder, tax-wise" (which is easier to argue, although Trump himself may have done the same). "Trump and technology companies aren't friendly, so we don't face the empathy that Obama had for Silicon Valley," says a copyright lobbyist. "That's an opening, although we don't know where it will end up."

Of course, those technology companies will continue to lobby as well. The transition of the Federal Trade Commission will be led by Joshua Wright, who received funding from Google for some academic papers involving antitrust law. And on Nov. 14, trade group The Internet Association, which represents dozens of companies including Google and Facebook, sent the president-elect an open letter that argued the Internet has flourished partly because limiting the liability of platform companies encourages economic growth and free speech. Such policies allow YouTube to host uploaded content without screening it, and -- music executives argue -- allow it to pay less for music than services like Spotify. The Copyright Office is currently studying the issue, although major changes to the law are unlikely. 

Assuming that Trump delegates many policy issues to Republicans, music executives have reasons for optimism. The party's platform, written with input from Trump's team, states that patents are property rights -- and thus worthy of strong protection. Although Democrats have become identified with the entertainment business, copyright now gets as much or more support from Republicans. "Some of the politicians we wouldn't have cocktails with are the people who treat us the best in Washington," says a music executive. "A lot of Republicans are very strong on intellectual property."

Perhaps most significant, Trump's transition team includes Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), one of the industry's strongest champions in D.C. "If there's one thing we know for sure, it's that music is bipartisan and beloved by all," RIAA Chairman and CEO Cary Sherman said in a statement. "We look forward to working with the incoming Administration and members of Congress to help keep music as an integral part of people's lives."

Still, it's too early to tell what will happen with some of the music industry's major policy priorities, such as the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act, which would obligate terrestrial radio stations to pay for their use of sound recordings. No one knows whether the Justice Department will drop its appeal on the issue of 100 percent licensing, or what might happen to the expected plan from House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) for more comprehensive copyright reform. Right now, the music biz, like everyone else in the country, is waiting to see exactly what a Trump administration will look like. As one lobbyist says, "It's going to be a very interesting four years."

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 26 issue of Billboard.