Green-lighting an effort to keep Georgia musicians in Georgia

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Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks perform at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville in 2013. Terry Wyatt/Getty Images

When Nathan Deal called on Tuesday, as both of us fled Athens for home, he had a specific advantage: That is, a driver.

So you’ll have to settle for general impressions of our conversation rather than a detailed record. Ga. 316 is simply not the place for taking notes.

Suffice it to say that the governor, who has imported much of Hollywood into Georgia with the help of tax credits, is at least curious about what it might take to lure Trisha Yearwood — and perhaps that no-account husband of hers — out of Nashville and back to the state where she was born.

And why musicians like Otis Redding, who never left Macon, Michael Stipe, an Athens fixture, are actually anomalies. Too often, to be a successful musician is to flee the state – for Nashville, Los Angeles, or New York.

Every other December, state lawmakers gather in Athens. Officially, the three-day event is designed around newcomers to the Legislature, offering them the nitty-gritty details of how a bill becomes law.

But the conclave also serves as a window into what January will bring when the General Assembly convenes. This week, hints were dropped about the budget, education reform and transportation.

Yet the final 90-minute session featured something new – a report from the House-Senate exploratory committee that has been looking into whether Georgia could or should do for the music industry what it has done for the TV and movie industry.

Michele Caplinger, who heads up the Atlanta chapter of the people who bring you the Grammys, suggested some tuneful symbiosis with the movie industry.

“Every film has music. And the music budget is generally 5 percent of that film budget,” she said. “So if we actively promoted and attracted scoring projects to Georgia, that would be a minimum of $85 million just spent on scoring.”

In the last two years, Caplinger said, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York have created tax incentives to attract tour rehearsal productions – tax breaks for bands and their roadies who might occupy local communities for weeks at a time.

David Barbe is director of the University of Georgia music business program. He’s produced a few “Drive-By Truckers” albums, and he believes that music has become a small-ball industry and should be treated accordingly.

Barbe spoke of tax incentives aimed at recording budgets, which on average fall somewhere between $10,000 and $100,000 per album. “These are middle class businesses, essentially,” Barbe said.

If this had been a session on tax incentives for auto-makers, no one in the audience would have voiced an objection. But the entertainment industry is something else. And so state Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, a very conservative Republican from Douglas, Ga., posed a sharp question.

LaRiccia wondered about the wisdom of “using tax dollars to incentivize industries for people that will turn around and oppose those very same pro-faith, pro-family policies that we support.”

The lawmaker avoided specifics, but he was speaking of House Bill 757, the “religious liberty” measure passed last session by the Legislature and intended to give conservative Christians shelter from court-approved, same-sex marriage.

Much of the movie industry threatened to end its romance with Georgia if Governor Deal signed the bill. The governor vetoed it.

Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, co-chair of the music committee and chairman of the powerful Senate Rules Committee, fielded LaRiccia’s question.

Mullis pointed out that, based on numbers alone, any state incentives were far more likely to help a writer or performer of gospel music than a devil-worshipping head-banger. ‘It is a diverse industry, and we recognize all of that,” Mullis added. “And we want to incentivize those. Religious groups as well as the ‘heathen-ous’ groups.”

A genuine wordsmith, Mullis is.

After the session, I hunted down the committee’s other co-chair, state Rep. Matt Dollar, R-Marietta. Dollar said a new possibility had bubbled up just in the last couple days.

Recording artists and songwriters live and die by royalties – annuities, basically, that can last years and years, depending on who uses their work.

“Wherever you live, that’s where the royalty lives,” the lawmaker said.

Gov. Nathan Deal speaks to legislators during the Biennial Institute for Georgia Legislators, hosted by The University of Georgia's Carl Vinson Institute of Government, in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday. John Roark/Athens Banner-Herald via AP

Gov. Nathan Deal speaks to legislators during the Biennial Institute for Georgia Legislators, hosted by The University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government, in Athens, Ga., on Tuesday. John Roark/Athens Banner-Herald via AP

Dollar says the state should think about exempting music royalties from the state income tax. That amounts to a 6 percent bump for musicians that could last decades. And for Georgia musicians tempted by Tennessee’s lack of any income tax, such a tax break could be a good enough reason to stay home. Dollar has asked for a fiscal note to see what the price to the state would be.

The governor didn’t sit in on the session about the music industry. But at the luncheon that followed, Deal pointed to the success of his film-industry incentives. About $7 billion had been generated by 245 film and TV projects in the 12 months that ended last July – a $1 billion increase over the year before.

In a 40-day session, lawmakers don’t have time to waste. It was important to know whether Deal was amenable to expanding the music industry in Georgia. He rushed out, headed for Atlanta, before I could grab him.

Then came the call on the cell phone.

Deal acknowledged meeting with several members of the music industry commission. He knows of the hip-hop industry in south Atlanta, the boutique groups of Athens. (One of his daughters is a singer who was the star of a Patsy Cline revue not long ago.)

I asked the governor whether he had given lawmakers a green light on the project. It depends, he said. The larger object would be to keep Georgia musicians in Georgia. Something limited might work. Something affordable that wouldn’t put every business on the governor’s doorstep asking for a hand-out.

The making of music is a much smaller enterprise than the making of movies, Deal said. So production incentives might not have much of an economic impact. Negotiations with large record labels were probably out of the picture.

Yet intellectual property protections might be another matter, the governor said. So I brought up Dollar’s idea to exempt music royalties from the state income tax.

“We may be headed that way,” the governor said – I could commit that much to memory. Deal also spoke favorably of maybe giving the film industry an incentive to use Georgia-based musicians.

That, friends, is a green light. Somewhere in Marietta, a lawmaker is doing a fist pump.

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