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Nothing makes me prouder of my country than our rich musical heritage.  R&B, Jazz, Blues, House music, and so much more: these are some of America’s greatest gifts to the world.

Of course, there are plenty of things about United States policy that I’d like to change, and when it comes to U.S. Copyright law, nothing is more out of step with the rest of the world than our lack of a performance right for sound recordings on AM/FM radio.

For music broadcast on FM radio in the United States, the station is not required to pay the performer or the record label a cent; only the songwriter and publisher get paid.  It’s an embarrassing policy the U.S. shares with a dwindling handful of countries, including Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan.  And the negative consequences are not limited to US artists and labels.  Here’s five reasons we need to fix it.

 

1)  It means both US artists and international artists miss out on royalties they deserve.  For international artists who get airplay in the United States, this policy amounts to serious lost income, whether it’s a UK pop star like Adele, regional Mexican stars like La Septima Banda, or a French smooth jazz artist like Philippe Saisse.  And likewise, because of reciprocity rules, US artists played abroad are missing out on millions of royalties—from Americana artists played in the UK to EDM artists who are played in Belgium.

2) It’s the biggest challenge to parity, across services and across nations.  Digital services like Pandora, satellite broadcasters like Sirius XM, subscription services like Tidal and Apple Music; all of these pay for both the sound recording and the composition.  It makes no sense that one delivery system would be singled out to get a free ride.

3) It distorts the rest of the marketplace. Because Big Radio is able to get out of paying musicians and labels for the content that fuels so much of their airtime, it puts a downward pressure on advertising rates.  This impacts not just terrestrial radio, but services that compete with terrestrial radio. Ultimately, that means less revenue for everyone in music, not just people who get played on commercial radio in the United States.

4) Artists would get paid directly and transparently.  In the US, statutory royalties from sound recordings are collected by SoundExchange which pays artists directly every month, with a fair split of 45% to featured artists, 50% to sound recording copyright owners, and 5% to to backing vocalists and session players through the AFM & SAG-AFTRA Intellectual Property Rights Distribution Fund. Crucially, that money can’t be held against recoupable debt to a label.

5) It’s counterproductive to our shared goals. So many of us are working to create international standards and cooperation on a range of issues to make sure collection societies can work together better and make sure every artist and rightsholder is paid fairly and transparently when their work is used.  These important efforts are undercut when the chunk of royalty money due to US performers and labels gets stuck in a collection society’s “black box” because of this performance right problem.

 

So, why hasn’t this problem been fixed?  Primarily it’s because the National Association of Broadcasters, the trade association representing the interests of big corporate broadcasters in the US don’t want to pay, and have succeeded in misleading the US Congress, claiming falsely that such a move would imperil local radio. This is especially dubious, because the biggest threat to truly local radio has been the big broadcasters themselves.  Thanks to their thirst for ownership consolidation, the largest companies have decimated a diverse medium that once elevated regional sounds, firing local DJs and replacing them with robots playing nearly identical playlists in every city, while taking on unsustainable debt loads.

Happily, they won’t be able to get away with it much longer, as musicians and their allies are leading a growing movement to fix the performance right problem once and for all.  Even groups representing truly local broadcasters including the National Federation of Community Broadcasters have endorsed the Fair Play Fair Pay act, a bipartisan piece of legislation which would remedy this problem.  Earlier this month, Future of Music Coalition joined with MusicFirst Coalition representing a broad consortium of artist groups, unions, trade organizations, and record labels to meet directly with Congressional representatives.  We encourage you to tell your US friends and colleagues to get involved.

 


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About Author

Kevin Erickson is National Organizing Director for Future of Music Coalition, a non-profit research, advocacy, and education organization for musicians. He’s also active as a producer and recording engineer in Washington DC.

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