Has the Moment Finally Arrived for Fairness to Music Performers?

Unlike the rest of the developed world, American radio broadcasters are unique in that they pay nothing in performers’ royalties when they play music on their stations. Although this has been true since radio began in the U.S., many Americans are surprised to learn that this is the case and, according to polling, believe it’s unfair. That’s because it is unfair.

Songwriters receive royalties for terrestrial radio play but not recording artists and their labels, which also excludes producers, engineers, and studio musicians. Almost since the day the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) was formed in 1922, the station owners have successfully lobbied against a public performance right in sound recordings via broadcast by arguing that the promotional value radio play provides to the recording industry overwhelms the rationale for paying to license the music.

“But that was never a legitimate excuse,” said Congressman Ted Deutch in front of the Capitol yesterday afternoon when he introduced the American Music Fairness Act, co-sponsored by Congressman Darrell Issa. “The broadcasters have become experts in muddying the waters,” Deutch continued as a group of musicians in the background, including Dionne Warwick, Sam Moore, Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys, and Blake Morgan, all nodded in recognition that this has been a decades-long fight for basic fairness. As Rep. Issa noted in response to one reporter’s question, Congress will not be negotiating the terms to establish equity with the major broadcasters—this will be done under the auspices of the Copyright Office—but he emphasized that the longstanding rule of “not one penny” is a bad faith arrangement that needs to be made right.

Six major media conglomerates own more than 2,000 terrestrial radio stations in the United States, and the revenues from radio advertising totals in the hundreds of billions of dollars. And nobody is confused about the fact that without music to play, most of those stations would not have the audiences needed to attract those advertisers. If American radio stations ever did provide enough promotional value to justify not paying for public performances of the recordings—and the relationship between radio and record sales is both questionable and scattershot at best—that argument is even weaker the 21st century market, when the prospect of selling copies or downloads is less likely than in prior decades.

At this point, while the pundits and the gurus keep spinning theories about “music discovery” (i.e. exposure) as an excuse to avoid paying creative people in many fields, the only clear observation we can make in this instance is that terrestrial radio is just one of several means by which we still listen to music. And the music is the ONLY reason we hear the advertisements that generate all the money in that industry. Surely, there can be no rationale for allowing entities like iHeartRadio, Cumulus, et al to keep paying nothing to the performers on whom they so profoundly depend.

Moreover, Rep. Issa explained that not only does America’s uniqueness in this regard deny royalties to both American and foreign artists in the American radio market, but it also denies royalties from foreign radio stations to American artists due to reciprocity. Because our radio stations don’t pay their artists, their radio stations don’t pay ours, which is rather extraordinary when we consider the amount of music the United States exports worldwide.

The AMFA is narrowly tailored to avoid imposing undue burdens on small, independent, and public radio stations through fixed, statutory rates for entities earning less than $1.5 million. For instance, a station earning $100,000 pays $10/year. Upon adoption of the bill, the larger entities will negotiate royalty arrangements with labels and other artist-representing stakeholders. But probably not without a fight by the broadcasters over passage of the bill itself.

The broadcasters have enjoyed a free ride for a very long time, and perhaps they will once again throw more money than the average musician ever earns at an effort to maintain the status quo. But on the other hand, maybe they’ll see the writing on the wall this time. Because at least when it comes to artists’ rights, many Members of Congress seem to have more finely tuned their bullshit detectors in recent years. And one upside of the of the fact that the broadcasters have successfully squashed the performers’ rights for so many years, is that every argument they can present, has already been made hundreds of times.

… no one would argue with the fact that the promotion which records receive from broadcast exposure boosts record sales and attendance at performers’ concerts. This promotion is more than adequate compensation for the broadcast performance. The undeniable truth is that many recording companies and artists would be forced out of business overnight if broadcasters stopped playing their records over the air.

That was in a letter submitted on behalf of the North Carolina Broadcasters to the Copyright Office in 1978. And what little purchase on reality the argument had then has long since eroded as foothold in the contemporary market. Time to play fair and give the musicians a little cut of the revenue their work generates. Because without the music, nearly all the radio stations would be forced out of business overnight.


Photo by hurricanehank

© 2021, David Newhoff. All rights reserved.

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