Pay the Piper

By Rob Patterson

The timing in some ways may be all wrong, yet the time has finally come for the Performance Rights Act, which is currently before Congress as I write this. The act grants royalties to performers on a recorded work of music when it is played on radio. Up until now, only the writers and composers have made royalties off the airplay of their music on terrestrial radio.

Of course, the National Association of Broadcasters is fighting the bill with all of its many powers, including a competing bill forbidding Congress from adding any royalties to what radio already pays. And at the same time, civil rights groups are concerned that the fee might impose an undue burden on small minority broadcasters. This is an issue where party lines are not the dividing lines.

Most other first-world nations already impose a performance royalty on radio. But they refuse to pay the share of it earned by American musical performers because there is no reciprocity of payment to their native talents from America. So performers — singers and musicians — are already losing out on some $70 million to $100 million annually.

And it is the fair and civilized thing to do, as I see it. The only way that many recording artists have made any money from their recordings (after record labels deduct the expenses) is if they write their own songs and get mechanical publishing royalties from sales and airplay royalties on their compositions. That’s one reason why the opponents of the Act have dubbed it the “Britney Bill” (as Britney Spears sings songs written by others), hardly its best promotion.

But creators of music, whether they write the songs, sing or play them should benefit from that. And despite the prominence of wealthy pop stars, most artists and musicians are just poor suckers like the rest of us just trying to make a dime and get by. It’s a matter of being just, and as with some other matters (such as, say, capital punishment), the US lags behind the rest of the civilized world.

The performance royalty is also already paid by Internet, cable and satellite radio here in America. But at a juncture when advertising revenues are down and broadcast radio is suffering like the rest of us in this flagging economy, it’s not the best time to ask radio stations to pay more.

And since major record companies were already suffering well before the economic downturn, opponents also infer that this is yet another money grab by a failing industry, and that the labels will find ways to pilfer from the royalties before they get to the performers. Record companies say they are providing free content to moneymaking radio stations, and the stations counter that by playing the music they are, if not advertising, at least promoting the product the labels are trying to sell.

And no matter where the income stream wends and flows, of course all costs will ultimately be passed on to the consumer. And the fact that record sales keep declining seems to say that the common folks aren’t as disposed to pay for music as they have been in the past. Then again, defying the economic as well as aforementioned trends, the live music business has remained somewhat robust. People will still pay for music, but maybe not music that’s overpriced and not very good.

It’s quite a conundrum that surrounds this whole issue. But if we, again, bring it back to the issue of fairness, on its simplest terms, the performance royalty is something all good populists should support.

On the other hand, the broadcasters are using any tactic they can to defeat this measure. As one broadcast told the Boston Globe, it might cause stations to abandon music for talk, with the result being “Rush Limbaugh on every station in America.” Scare tactics indeed.

But whatever happens in this Congress, the performance royalty is an issue whose time has come and it will, I predict, sometime soon become part of the American musical royalty system. But it is also one of those many wild cards fluttering out there in the modern entertainment system that is bound to have its effects beyond the benefits it will bring largely deserving musical talents.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2009

Home Page

Subscribe to The Progressive Populist

Copyright © 2009 The Progressive Populist.