Legislation will help artists, won’t hurt local radio

Posted Sept. 18, 2009, at 7:47 p.m.

We hope the Bangor Daily News is not beyond persuasion on the fight to ensure that artists, musicians and rights holders are paid when their music is played on the radio. But it would be hard to tell based on the paper’s views in the Sept. 14 editorial “Radio Free America.”

AM and FM music radio stations earn billions in ad revenue every year playing music that listeners want to hear. The artists and musicians who bring the music to life and to listeners’ ears do not get a single penny. It’s wrong. Don McLean, best known for his hit song “American Pie,” wrote this to us from Camden: “Without the artist and the magic of his or her performance, who would ever hear the song in the first place?”

In the early days of radio, artists and musicians were paid to come in to a radio station’s studio and play live. When sound recordings became available, radio stations closed their studios and shooed the artists and musicians. “We don’t need to pay you anymore,” they said. And with a little help from a 1939 federal court decision and the lobbying power of an industry that reaches every state and congressional district in the land, it has been that way ever since.

Over the decades, the music community has fought to change the law. It started with the Big Band leaders. Then stars like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby pitched in. The background singers and session musicians joined the fight, too. Their argument was pretty simple: If you use our work to earn billions, we should get fair pay for airplay. Everyone’s work has value and everyone’s work should be rewarded.

Fast forward to 2009. Artists and musicians are closer than ever before to winning a radio performance right. Today, every other radio platform pays artists and musicians. Satellite radio pays. Internet radio pays. Cable TV music channels pay. And here is the real kicker: If a local music radio station streams its signal online — same music, same DJs, same ads — it pays for the online performance.

Music radio stations around the world also pay artists and musicians when they use their work. A few countries don’t have a radio performance right; countries like North Korea, China, Iran, Rwanda and the U.S. This is not the company we should be keeping.

When American music is played around the world, American artists are not paid because we do not have the same right here for foreign artists and musicians. There is something wrong here. And that is what the MusicFIRST Coalition — a coalition of the music community — is trying to fix.

The U.S. House Judiciary Committee has already approved a bill to create a radio performance right for artists and musicians. The vote was lopsided 21-9 in favor and bipartisan. That’s a breath of fresh air coming out of Washington. A hearing has been held in the Senate Judiciary Committee and we are hoping for bipartisan action soon. Most of the money paid by radio stations would go to artists and musicians. And that doesn’t even count the money that could be collected from music radio stations around the world.

There is one point on which we agree with the Bangor Daily News. We do not want to hurt radio stations, especially the small stations that serve local communities in Maine. So the bill has special accommodations for small, local broadcasters. Eighty five percent of music radio stations in Maine would pay $5,000 a year or less to clear the rights for all the music they use. Some would pay as little as $500 a year. Nonprofit stations would pay $500 or $1,000 a year. Talk radio stations, sports radio stations and radio stations that air religious services would pay nothing.

Because we fully understand that we are in an economic downturn, 90 percent of music radio stations in America would not make payments until three years after the bill is passed.

The big corporate-owned radio stations would likely pay more. They would negotiate a rate with SoundExchange, the organization that collects money from the radio platforms that pay and distributes the money to artists, musicians and rights holders. They can do it. Just a few months ago corporate radio’s trade association and SoundExchange negotiated an agreement for radio’s online streams. If they can’t, the Copyright Royalty Board would collect evidence and set a rate. It would also take into account the promotional value of radio in setting the rate.

That’s fair pay for airplay. We hope the Bangor Daily News agrees that everyone deserves to be paid for their work.

Jennifer Bendall is the executive director of the musicFIRST Coalition, www.musicFIRSTCoalition.org.

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