Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mr. Omowale Goes to Washington

This is the image of a man making a pained and impassioned plea to his government.

Every US citizen should go to Congress in Washington D.C. and lobby for a cause they believe in.

On June 18 and 19, I met with congressional staffers to tell my story and advocate for the revision of Internet radio royalty rates - a cause that could change the very nature of my business and my life. For more background on the issue click HERE.

By walking through the House and Senate office buildings, and participating in the lobbying process, I got a much better understanding of what really goes on at the Capitol. I also understand why those of us who DON'T have lobbyists working on our behalf are constantly beaten by those who do.

Here's how it works.

Most Americans might be surprised to learn that congress members don't read or write the bills that are presented to them for legislation. Instead they have teams of staffers - mostly young adults between the ages of 23 and 31 - who read and write many of the bills and proposals that are submitted to them. Those staffers then present those documents to the congress member who makes the executive decision about whether to support or not support a particular measure.

This is where the lobbying process becomes supremely important. The lobbyist, of course, is there to sway the opinions of staffers and members of the House and Senate. (NOTE: This point also took on greater meaning for me after watching Thank You For Smoking last night.) Lobbyists relate the facts to staff and congress members, but those facts are spun to benefit the client who is paying the lobbyist.

So you have representatives and senators who don't have time to pay close attention to all of the legislation that is in front of them. Next you have young people, often fresh out of school, who have the awesome responsibility of determining right from wrong, and who often only have the information that is presented to them by lobbyists. Then you have lobbyists who are paid to promote the position of their clients. Finally, you have the rest of us, the people who are affected by all of the wrangling behind the scenes, and who most often don't have our own advocates on the hill working on our behalf.

The Internet radio issue is an interesting case study for this. SoundExchange is the organization that collects royalties for the record labels and artists. They are also the group that created the royalty rate structure that could bankrupt the Internet radio industry and completely usurp independent artists' ability to use net radio for marketing.

The congressional staffers I met told me that SoundExchange lobbyists claimed to speak for artists when they presented their side of the issue. In reality, they most actively represent the RIAA, the corporate music industry's lobbying group. Yes, these are the same people who are suing college students and grandmothers for downloading music online. The RIAA is losing market share to independents as the Internet has begun to level the playing field.

The SaveNetRadio Coalition, is a coalition of webcasters, artists and listeners that was formed to combat the outrageous royalty increases proposed by SoundExchange on behalf of the corporate industry. My own perspective falls squarely on the SaveNetRadio side, but SoundExchange told congress that they spoke for me and the thirty-one artists who took to The Hill in an effort too preserve the freedom of Internet radio. If we had not been there to speak for ourselves, these staffers wouldn't have known the difference.

Though this issue was taken up by independent artists and small webcasters, other SaveNetRadio Coalition members are large media giants like Yahoo, Microsoft, NPR and AOL. Without their dollars supporting this effort, there may not have been any lobbyists to speak on behalf of the small business owners like me who are most affected by these royalty changes. The big boys stand to lose a lot of money. The rest of us stand to lose our livelihood.

What happens in an issue where large corporations and "the little people" are on opposite sides of the bill? When it comes down to it, big business has a lot more capital to spend putting lobbyists into play on Capitol Hill.

All of the staffers I met were sharp, intelligent individuals, but if they are only presented with one side of an issue, how can they act on anything but the facts they are given?

This is how America has become what Fannie Lou Hamer described as a nation "with a handful, for a handful, and by a handful." Who speaks for the rest of us? When we don't have our own lobbyists and activist organizations, and when we don't stand up and speak for ourselves, no one does.

I know now that flooding congressional offices with calls and emails does help. The calls some of the staffers received from their constituents had a great effect in moving them closer to the right side of the Internet radio issue. But I can also see where these calls have to be strong and consistent. Media pressure and face to face lobbying hold a lot more power than an email or an irate phone call.

I will definitely go back to The Hill to lobby Congress again. I'm convinced that if anything is going to happen on a legislative level, that's the best way to get it done. You have to get in the faces of the staffers, representatives and senators. When your position is nothing but an abstract image, there is no way you can win.

Though we often don't want to believe it, the people who run our government are human beings. They can be moved by the emotional pleas of people whose lives will change because of decisions that are made on their behalf. The large corporations know this. That's why they put as much money as possible behind their quest to own the US government, lock, stock and barrel.

But We, the people, should not underestimate our power to create change. We just have to get up and make it happen.


Blogger Paul Hue said...

This is some very helpful information. It seems that one important factor is to figure out what Big Business stands to benefit from your position. In your case, you indie artists face off against the Record Labels, who slyly pretended to represent you. But you have identified Yahoo, etc. as a Big Business who can stand up to the Record Labels, because they share your interest.

All of this suggests how we can get other sensible legislation passed. For example, people trying to buy and sell homes have for years wanted to do away with real estate agents, who are worthless.... actually, worse than worthless. They're only justification was that before the internet they provided the only source for buyers and sellers to know about each other. Now with the internet they rely on laws that require their participation in sales. The Realtor lobby is a Big Business that keeps People from having what they want: freedom to buy and sell houses without Realtors. What Big Business stands to benefit, to assist people here? I would say the internet companies, perhaps, since people would utilize websites to replace Realtors.

But how easy is it to get an audience with these staffers, Nadir? And surely the big money people meet directly with the Senators and Congressmen, and pass on their bribes, so when the staffer goes to John Conyers / John McCain and excitedly announces that the Record Label guy was lying, Conyers / McCain will still find a way to side with the guy who paid the bribe, and tell the excited staffer to go write the legislation accordingly. No?

June 21, 2007 1:28 PM  
Blogger Nadir said...

"But how easy is it to get an audience with these staffers, Nadir?"

I sent an email to my rep and got a reply that day. I sent faxes to my two senators a couple of weeks ago and still haven't heard back. The lobbyists for SaveNetRadio also helped with meetings and logistics, further proof that they know the game, and know how to play it.

"And surely the big money people meet directly with the Senators and Congressmen, and pass on their bribes, so when the staffer goes to John Conyers / John McCain and excitedly announces that the Record Label guy was lying, Conyers / McCain will still find a way to side with the guy who paid the bribe, and tell the excited staffer to go write the legislation accordingly. No?"

I can't argue with that. But if we don't have a way to at least get in their face to give our side, we don't have a chance at all.

June 21, 2007 2:19 PM  
Blogger Paul Hue said...

Yeah, I agree that the system certainly has major problems, but it is a consistent system, and it does offer ways for citizens to get their interests addressed. If you know that this system includes legalized bribery, you just gotta find somebody on your side who can cancel out your opponents bribe! This reminds me of an Eddie Murphey movie (one that excluded bathroom jokes and fat suites), where he played a new politician who learned: he can take whichever side of an issue he wants, because somebody on that side will have "campaign contributions" and other perks for him!

With this in mind, then normal citizens can then assert themselves. Perhaps normal citizens plus bribes form Yahoo can beat bribes from Record Labels with no average citizens coupled.

June 21, 2007 3:48 PM  

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