A broad coalition of lawmakers, recording artists and executives came together Monday to promote a bill that would change the economics of the radio industry. Two House members, Reps. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., and Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and a wide variety of musicians, including Rosanne Cash, Cyndi Lauper, Martha Reeves, Gloria Gaynor and Nona Hendryx, assembled on a stage at the SAG-AFTRA headquarters in Midtown Manhattan to announce the launch of the Fair Play, Fair Pay Act of 2015, a bill that would see artists compensated every time their songs are broadcast on the radio.
“Today we get to work fixing some of the greatest injustices facing artists,” musicFIRST Coalition Executive Director Ted Kalo told the audience. “The current system is antiquated and broken.”
The announcement, organized by the musicFIRST Coalition, comes days before busloads of recording artists descend on Washington as part of Grammys on the Hill, a day of lobbying lawmakers on the issues facing the recording industry, including the systemic decline of physical and digital album sales and the rise of streaming. “As all of these new technologies and streaming services come along, ‘People have begun to say, 'What do you mean, radio does not pay for what they play?'" said Blackburn, who represents suburbs of "Music City" Nashville. "We're going to get this cleaned up."
At the heart of Fair Play, Fair Pay is something called a performance royalty, a term for money conferred to the musicians and performers responsible for the rendition captured in a particular recording. At the moment, only a song's authors receive financial compensation for the songs played on the radio in the United States; the people who play or perform the songs do not. When Aretha Franklin's iconic version of "Respect" comes on, she doesn't get a nickel -- Otis Redding's estate does.
"Everybody thinks we're getting big money," said Martha Reeves, the lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas. "I don't mind being an oldie but a goodie, but I'd like to get paid for my work."
The United States is on a short list of countries -- Iran, North Korea, Rwanda and China are the others -- that do not pay artists performance royalties. And because the United States does not compensate foreign artists whose music is played on the radio, radio stations in foreign markets that play American music withhold their royalties in retaliation. The bill's advocates estimate that this loss of income, along with the money that is not generated by performance royalties domestically, costs the U.S. economy $100 million every year.
"It is time for the United States to join the rest of the civilized world on this issue," Nadler said.
A Familiar Fight
Efforts have been made to amend this rule before, most recently in 2009, when Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., from Motown home Detroit, who is also one of Fair Play’s sponsors, and Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced a piece of legislation called the Performance Rights Act. The bill passed in both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees but never came to a full vote in either chamber. Two years ago, the National Association of Broadcasters, which represents the interests of radio broadcasters, helped draft the Local Radio Freedom Act, which would ban any further performance fees or taxes from being charged to terrestrial radio stations. That bill is currently sitting in the House's subcommittee on courts, intellectual property and the Internet.
Last Thursday, the NAB issued a pre-emptive strike against Fair Play.
“The fees proposed by Rep. Nadler would kill jobs, hurt artist promotion and devastate local economies across America," the NAB wrote in a statement published on its website. "NAB will strongly oppose the legislation reportedly being introduced by Rep. Nadler on Monday." The NAB has already assembled a list of more than 147 congressmen who will oppose Fair Play, Fair Pay.
In the past, radio broadcasters have framed attempts to institute a performance royalty as a tax that would imperil their entire industry. Fair Play, Fair Pay addresses those concerns by tiering the amount of money radio stations are expected to pay, based on their yearly earnings. Radio stations earning less than $1 million in revenue would have to pay a maximum of $500 per year; nonprofit stations would pay less, and larger stations would negotiate. "Large conglomerates will no longer be able to hide behind small stations to perpetuate this injustice," Nadler said.
The bill would also revise the performance royalty rate set back in the 1990s for satellite radio stations like SiriusXM; there already is a performance royalty in place for satellite radio, as well as for Web-based radio providers like Pandora and for Web-based streaming services like Spotify.
Fair Play, Fair Pay would require the performance royalty to be negotiated. “Satellite radio has paid below market rate, growing into a multibillion-dollar business on the backs of injustice against artists,” Nadler said.
The event's organizers are hoping Monday's events will not go down in a vacuum. A coalition of 200 artists will descend on Washington Thursday for an event called the Grammys on the Hill, which will see artists visiting lawmakers personally to make the case for this legislation.
“Congress doesn’t do it unless you make them do it,” Kalo said. “It’s our job to make them do it.”