- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

If it was video that killed the radio star, it was the internet that slaughtered the music business.

John Popper, the leader singer and harmonica extraordinaire of Blues Traveler, remembers those halcyon days, when record labels spent millions producing and promoting albums, which were musicians’ bread-and-butter before the likes of Napster and Groskster — and their later legal descendants like iTunes and Pandora — turned the business upside-down.

“We got the tail end of when making a record was like making a movie and everyone got their money,” Mr. Popper told The Washington Times. “There was so much money being thrown around. There were big advances.

“It was a glorious time, and if you got a hit out of that, it actually paid you something.”

Mr. Popper is in the District to perform Wednesday evening on Capitol Hill for GRAMMYs On The Hill Awards and Advocacy Day, an event that recognizes both musical artists and legislators who have worked to improve the share of royalties and other moneys that music generates in the age of digital downloads.

Many music laws are antiquated, going back to the era when songwriters made most of their earnings from sheet music.

“Allowing producers to participate in royalties, that’s something that hasn’t been fixed in 40 years,” Mr. Popper said, touting the Fair Play Fair Pay Act, and the Allocation for Music Producers Act (AMP Act).

The event Wednesday evening will see Keith Urban honored by The Recording Academy for his commitment to music education programs that work to inspire young musicians and provide instruments to those who may not be able to afford them. Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican, will also be honored for her ongoing commitment to the music community. Grammy winner Wynonna Judd and other music industry stalwarts will be present.

“As far as education needing music programs, that’s a no-brainer,” Mr. Popper said of the need to continue to foster music classes in schools. “As much of a libertarian as I’d like to claim myself, I am the product of a public school music program. That is completely where my band’s career started.”

Indeed, despite earning what he claimed were terrible grades and a rather dismal school attendance record — saying he “had like 150 absences” — it was that public education and finding his way in music class where Mr. Popper first felt a sense of belonging as an adolescent.

“It was the first time I was loved by a school program,” he said of his time in school, which was where he also began teaching himself harmonica.

The music business that Mr. Popper and his bandmates in Blues Traveler entered into in the mid-‘80s — and which they enjoyed success thanks to their breakthrough album, “4,” — effectively no longer exists. Before, musicians used to tour to produce an album; now it is the precise opposite.

“What a record is is a promotional tool that allows you to live on [concert] tickets,” Mr. Popper said. “We basically don’t look at records as things that make us money. The [artists] who survive are the ones who perform live.

“There’s such a disparity now as far as what making a record can get you.”

Mr. Popper believes that at the minimum, the artists’ intellectual property should be respected on radio, thereby allowing songwriters and artists a cut of airplay revenues.

“Radio is a format … making money with sponsorships by playing content that belongs to other people,” he said. “Those other people should participate. It’s just a sense of fairness and a sense of logic.

“If this law changed, that might actually mean we can get paid for royalties if we sell enough and earn a nice living that way.”

Mr. Popper, who lives in Seattle, has family in the District, and plans to spend time with them when not on The Hill this week. Now 50, he also recently became a father himself.

After his time advocating for better fairness in the music biz, he says there are plans in 2017 to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Blues Traveler.

“I’m just really honored to speak” before The Recording Academy, he said. “They really champion education and try to think of ways to help artists. And by artists, I also include producers.

“It’s an amazing thing that it’s been overlooked this long.”

Much needs to be done, he said, if musicians and songwriters will effectively find a way to get paid in the 21st century.

“If there’s a way that this could happen for the first time in my life, it would be some impetus to go out and make a more interesting record to get competitive all over again,” Mr. Popper said, “and that’s good for everybody.”

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