Image via Luminato Festival

Image via Luminato Festival

By Nathan McAlone

David Byrne is fast becoming the go-to spokesperson for issues at the intersection of music and politics. He’s been one of a few artists, including Thom Yorke, to speak out prominently against the onslaught of streaming services, and has also publicly bemoaned the death of creativity in New York. But while these are hot button issues, the latest cause Byrne has lent his voice to is one many might be less familiar with: the issue of performer royalties on terrestrial radio.

Earlier this year, Byrne took to the stage in overalls to perform a cover of Biz Markie’s “Just A Friend” at a concert and rally organized by Content Creators Coalition-NYC. The group is demanding Congressional action to change the fact that the United States is one of only a few countries where performers (as opposed to composers) don’t see any (yes, ANY) royalties when their songs are played on the radio.

It seemed so bizarre that this uneven system of compensation is still in place that we contacted the Content Creators Coalition-NYC to get a bit more background on the issue, and to find out what we could potentially do to help their efforts.

Read our interview with CCC-NYC member and avant-garde guitarist Marc Ribot below.

What’s the general history of this issue in the United States, has the law always been like this? What’s the reasoning behind it?
Virtually all of the EEC (European Economic Community), Central and South America, the former Soviet Bloc countries and Japan—but not the US—are parties to the “Rome Convention”of 1961, which provides, in part, for content owners and artists featured on recordings to share in income generated from the public performance of their recordings. I gleaned from a few sources that the US resisted participation in the Rome Convention due to fears of it leading to “payola.” Irony.

What kinds of artists does the law usually hurt?
The law hurts all artists whose music plays on US commercial radio, or on radio in almost all countries outside the US, and all the musicians who played on those records. The law, as it now stands, hurts all artists and recording musicians: but it is especially harsh for artists who didn’t compose their own material. Composers—those who wrote the songs—ARE paid under the current system. Artists/musicians aren’t. Most people are shocked to learn that Aretha Franklin didn’t earn a penny from the radio play for “Respect” (Otis Redding wrote the tune: Aretha performed it). We think Aretha deserves the same respect that every other democratic country pays its artists.

Have there ever been significant attempts to change the law, and if so is there a reason they haven’t succeeded? 
Yes, several years ago there was an attempt to pass an artist performance royalty bill. It failed following a sophisticated and well-funded advertising and social media campaign, supposedly mounted by a group representing small radio stations. Given the fact that the law would have exempted public, college, nonprofit, and some other small radio stations, one must ask what small radio stations were really being affected—and how these small and marginal businesses could afford to coordinate such a sophisticated national campaign.

Could it have been a front for Clear Channel?  Nah, they would never do anything like that!  In any case, we can expect to see similar claims being made this time. The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is already complaining about the effect on “mom and pop” radio. This is somewhat ironic since the real interests behind the NAB—Clear Channel—have done more to shut down or destroy the independence of US “mom and pop” radio stations than any radio royalty could possibly do.

However, yes, there are some stations which would have to pay marginally higher operating costs. Perhaps a system of subsidies or exemptions could address the needs of those stations genuinely in need. But at the end of the day the fact is this: even small bakeries need to budget for flour. And for-profit businesses generating their income from music need to pay those who made it. Come on people: if Ecuadoran radio stations can pay the artists/musicians, so can ours.

Is there a specific reason why the United States is only one of a few countries where the law is written this way?
Yes: well paid lobbyists of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Do US performers get paid when their songs are played on the radio in other countries?
No. Why? Because the US doesn’t pay their nationals, so they won’t pay ours. This is costing Americans jobs. US artists receive much more airplay abroad than foreign artists do in the US.

So, the foreign withholding of funds is hurting the US much more than it’s hurting foreign artists. This is not just about Top 40 stars: many US jazz, experimental, and legacy artists tour extensively in Europe and South America and Japan, and are losing out on the performance royalties those countries offer.

Does these laws affect internet radio sites like Pandora, or nonprofit radio stations? 
No. Pandora is internet: internet radio already pays artists through Sound Exchange. The changes in the law we’re hoping for would affect only terrestrial radio, and would not affect terrestrial nonprofit, college, or public stations.

Have you been getting movement on this issue, who is supportive of a law change?
Almost every artist, musician, and virtually every union and trade  organization representing them. Almost everyone except the NAB. We’ve had a number of organizations express an interest in working in coalition with us to create a bill and move it forward, and there are reports that a bill may be in the works. We’re staying on it.

What can people do to get involved?
Sign our petition. If you’re a “creator of cultural content,” join the Content Creators Coalition.