Professor John Simson, a veteran in the music industry since 1971, has held diverse roles, from being a recording artist and songwriter to managing Grammy-winning artists like Mary-Chapin Carpenter. He played a pivotal role in launching SoundExchange, an organization responsible for collecting over Eight Billion Dollars in royalties from internet and satellite radio services for artists and labels. Simson’s impactful career includes an Emmy nomination for music supervision and advocacy for artists’ rights, garnering attention from major news outlets.
In this exclusive interview with Professor Simson for PopStyleTV, he delved into his distinguished career and explored his connection with the legendary late singer, Tony Bennett.
Karly B.: Can you share some insights into your extensive career in the music industry, from being a recording artist and songwriter to your roles as a manager, entertainment lawyer?
Professor John Simson: My evolution, from recording artist, songwriter, record producer and commercial jingle writer, was a slow one which grew organically. Some of the “detours” were quite by accident. I think that my experience playing in bands during junior high school, high school and my solo work in college, all informed what came later: I understood how hard it was to make a living as a creative. And, I’d been very lucky to be “discovered” as a 20 year-old, sent to London to record with some of my childhood idols, and then to open one date on Jethro Tull’s Aqualung tour in 1971.
Karly B.: During your time as Executive Director of SoundExchange, you played a crucial role in collecting royalties for recording artists and record labels. How did you navigate the challenges and opportunities in this role?
Professor John Simson: In many ways, my role assisting in the development and launch of SoundExchange, and then running it for its initial 10 years, was the perfect meshing of my business and creative skills. I knew that SoundExchange, to be successful, had to become a trusted source by both recording artists and record labels; an honest broker to assist in obtaining fair rates for the use of recordings, transparency in the method that royalties would be collected and then paid; and to diplomatically navigate the gap between artists and their labels, which was incredibly wide during the early days of SoundExchange.
Karly B.: “American Roots Music” earned you an Emmy nomination for your music supervision. Could you describe your experience working on that project and its impact on the music industry?
Professor John Simson: Emmy award winning Filmmaker, Jim Brown and I had started working together about 8 years before American Roots Music commenced. Jim’s reputation in the music documentary world was untouchable, having worked with Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Springsteen, Keith Richards and so many others. I hired him to direct and produce Mary-Chapin Carpenter’s Wolf Trap PBS Special in 1994, which I executive produced, and by 1998 we were likely on our 10th or 11th film together. American Roots Music was such an extensive project, where I had to obtain rights to over 150 compositions and recordings, that when I started my work to create SoundExchange, for the RIAA, I reserved Fridays for work on American Roots during my initial year of employment – essentially working a 45-50 hour work week in four days. While AMR was a wonderful show, that highlighted nearly every major contributor to American music of the 20th Century, I don’t know that it really had an impact on the music industry, which was fighting for it’s life in 2000 and 2001 against the onslaught of P2P file-sharing, the rise of Napster and the eventual death of the CD business.
Karly B.: You have been at the forefront of advocating for artist’s rights and fair compensation for their work online. What motivated you to take on this important battle?
Professor John Simson: As a history major in college, I was always drawn to some of the interesting aspects of the recording industry’s struggles to be fairly compensated by those who used their products. The battle between radio stations and recording artists is the longest running and one that needs to be fixed. It originated in the 1920’s and continues to this day – that radio stations get to play recordings and don’t have to pay for them. Recording artists can’t even withhold their work and say, “if you’re not going to pay me, then I don’t want you to play my recordings!” In the early 1990’s I was approached by the RIAA to join a coalition to try and change this inequity. I gladly joined and encouraged Mary-Chapin Carpenter, who I was managing at the time, to join the effort – which she did. I recruited other managers and their artist clients as well. While we failed to get radio stations to pay, we did get a law passed in 1995, the Digital Performance Right in Sound Recordings Act, which for the very first time established that recording artists would be entitled to payment from digital, cable and satellite services when their recordings were streamed. At the time, I was managing artists and never thought that five years later, I’d be recruited to help build the organization to collect and distribute these royalties. The biggest challenge that artists always face in these battles is that the users, whether they are radio, internet radio, satellite radio or cable music services, control the pipes to the consumers. They can manipulate the message to consumers. Pandora did that in 2007, as did a group of smaller webcasters in the early 2000’s when they created, “A Day of Silence,” as a protest against rates they’d have to pay to stream music. Over-the-air radio (terrestrial radio) has always been one of the strongest lobbies on the Hill as they control the airwaves and politicians have historically needed to be on radio and television to get elected!
Karly B.: With your diverse background in the music and entertainment industries, how have your experiences as a recording artist, manager, lawyer, and advisor shaped your perspectives on copyright and business issues in these fields?
Professor John Simson: One of the critical factors about being successful in this business, is understanding the business; how each player makes their money, how they interact with each other; programs like Nashville’s Leadership Music, which I completed in 1994-95 also help immensely in building relationships and building an understanding of what others need to make a deal successful.
Karly B.: As a frequent lecturer on music industry and copyright issues, what key messages do you strive to convey to your audiences?
Professor John Simson: Fairness, transparency, inclusion, ensuring that all stakeholders are treated with respect. But, also, to question why things are done in a particular way, if that way no longer makes sense.
Karly B.: Can you tell us about your involvement with the National Recording Preservation Board of the Library of Congress and how you contributed to preserving the nation’s musical heritage?
Professor John Simson: I spent roughly 20 years on the Board and it was delightful. Meeting each year with interesting colleagues and discussing, debating and demonstrating which recordings should be included in that year’s nominees. Given the vastness of the releases, which are deserving, it was always a challenge to narrow down our recommendations to the Librarian.
Karly B.: In your tenure as the Chairman of the D.C. Bar’s Art, Entertainment, Media & Sports Law Committee, what were some of the notable initiatives or projects you worked on to benefit the creative community?
Professor John Simson: As a former President of the Washington, D.C. Chapter of the Grammy organization, what initiatives did you champion to support musicians and the music industry in the region? In 1995 and 1996, I created a group of local music leaders to petition the Grammy organization to create a D.C. Chapter. I was a member of the Nashville Chapter, given my success managing artists based in Nashville. My other choices were to join New York or the newly created Philadelphia Chapter. We fought for our own chapter as we knew the DMV had a rich musical heritage and Philly was simply too far away for this to work. I championed the creation of Grammy U to get college students more engaged with the Academy and worked on the Awards and Nominations committee to improve the overall process for becoming a Grammy member. Previously, I had been part of a small group of D.C. industry leaders who created the Washington Area Music Association in 1984 to promote local and regional artists. We also created the Wammie Awards which are still running today.
Karly B.: You have taught Entertainment Law at prestigious institutions like Washington College of Law and Georgetown University Law Center. How do you balance your professional experience with academic principles in your teaching approach?
Professor John Simson: Students love hearing how things are actually done in practice, in addition to reading important cases. I was able to share actual agreements with them and go over deal points from major contracts I’d negotiated. (Obviously, I would remove any references to who the parties were!)
Karly B.: Throughout your career, you’ve interacted with numerous artists and professionals in the music industry. Can you share a memorable moment or experience that had a profound impact on your perspective?
Professor John Simson: When I was working for Mr. Belafonte, I was invited to his home for dinner. My wife and I were in NYC for our anniversary, but how do you pass up an opportunity like that? We didn’t. After dinner, Harry took us into his study which featured many remarkable documents that he’d collected; Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. Dubois, Abraham Lincoln and many more. An autographed baseball by Sandy Koufax lamenting that Harry couldn’t attend his start in the World Series; but the most stunning was a handwritten copy of the “I Have A Dream” speech that Dr. King had written in Harry’s apartment while staying with him in NYC and which he’d given to Harry..
Karly B.: In your role as a special advisor to Mr Belafonte, what were some of the projects or ventures you collaborated on, and how did they contribute to the advancement of music and television?
Professor John Simson: When I first started working for Harry, we were working on a PBS special that aired in 1997, as well as the creation of a record label, Niger Records, that sadly, never released a recording. It was an interesting experience nonetheless, as we traveled to Cuba to scout talent. During that initial year, Harry said to me that there were some recordings he’d done decades earlier that were somewhere in the vaults of RCA and that we’d have to find them. Coincidentally, a BMG executive (BMG had bought RCA) phoned me to discuss these same recordings that they had recently uncovered in their vaults. The result was an amazing 5 CD release, “A History of African-American Folk Music” that required an amazing amount of research to uncover all of the rights involved and whether we had clearances for all of them.
Karly B.: Beyond your professional achievements, you were recognized as the Outstanding Volunteer Lawyer by Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts. Could you tell us about your involvement with this organization and the significance of this recognition?
Professor John Simson: Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts (WALA) is a great local organization that has provided free or low cost attorneys to artists or arts groups that are in need of legal services. I served on the Board for a number of years and was very active as a volunteer attorney. I was humbled to be honored in this manner and hopefully assisted many artists, early in their careers, before they could afford to pay for legal services.
Karly B.: Can you share more details about your experience meeting Mr. Bennett on Capitol Hill and the specific impact he had on the legislation you were working on?
Professor John Simson: Tony Bennett came to Capitol Hill in support of the MusicFirst Coalition’s legislation to “fix” recording artists’ lack of a performance right at terrestrial radio. He was incredibly gracious and willing to come to bat for his fellow artists. Many younger performers are threatened by radio stations that their music will be dropped if they stand up for their rights, so it was especially important that artists who are not as vulnerable to these threats step up to let Congress know about this issue. As someone who has interpreted many great songs, but who has infrequently written songs, this right is even more important.
Karly B.: Given your comprehensive background and expertise, what advice would you offer to aspiring musicians and individuals looking to build successful careers in the music and entertainment industries?
Professor John Simson: I think successful careers are built upon learning everything you can about the business, your reputation within the industry as someone who can be trusted, who is loyal to those who’ve supported you in the early years of your career, and who take the time to value every person they meet along the way. I teach my students that building a network starts with your classmates and being a good teammate on group projects. If someone is working at a company and finds out the company is hiring, they are not going to recommend the person who did nothing on the group project in class (but let others do the work) but will certainly recommend someone who put in the work, was great to work with and had a passion to succeed.