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Closing the door on performer royalties

HOST: For most musicians, the sign, and sound, of a breakthrough is when you hear yourself on the radio. Now, if you wrote the song, you get royalties every time it’s played. But the performer doesn’t. The U.S. is one of the few countries in the world where AM and FM radio stations don’t pay royalties to performers. And now, a new resolution introduced in Congress aims to make sure they never have to. But Hanna Klingberg hears the sounds of change.


Song “My Mammy”

This is “My mammy” by the Peerless Quartette. This recording was played on local radio in 1922, the same year broadcasters started paying royalties to songwriters. But the Peerless Quartette as performers got nothing. That’s because radio stations thought playing recordings was just a way to promote live shows.

That’s still the case today. But there’s a battle going on. The musicians’ unions want  performer royalties. But the radio stations refuse, saying the cost, which could be in the billions, would ruin local stations. Dennis Wharton from the National Association of Broadcasters, or N-A-B, represents 14,000 radio stations around the country.

WHARTON: We want to grow the music pie, we want to expose new artists, but I don’t think the way to do that is to punish the number one platform for new music. 

The N-A-B is lobbyingfor the Local Radio Freedom Act. That’s a resolution introduced last week that would prohibit Congress from passing a performer royalty bill, in the future. But musicians’ right oranizations like MusicFirst are fighting it. It’s president, Ted Kalo is encouraging musicians to write their congressman to stop the resolution.

KALO: It’s an attempt to claim victory on the issue and declare any legislation that would advance a performance right dead on arrival.

It’s no coincidence that the radio lobby introduced this resolution now. MusicFirst has been working on a bill to be introduced later this year that would require these payments. It would mimick the bill already in place for Digital broadcasters. Since 1995 web broadcaster like Pandora, Spotify, and satellite radio like Sirius XM have had to pay both the songwriter and the performers. Ray Hair is the President of the American Federation of Musicians.

HAIR: It’s not fair for us to be compensated in the digital realm and still be denied compensation in the terrestrial broadcast world. 

Last year, digital outlets paid out 800 million dollars, and Hair claims that’s only 25% of total air play. Dennis Wharton from the National Association of Broadcasters says the cost would be devastating.

WHARTON: From a perspective of radio stations, that would cause a loss of jobs, and hurt the economics of radio stations. 

And the question is, who would really benefit from performer royalties? Well, the money would go to whoever owns the master recording of the song. Usually that’s not the musicians, it’s the label. The performer only gets a share. So the labels stand to make millions, but individual musicians might not. And it’s not like they make a lot from the digital broadcasts. A song on Spotify can receive as little as six hundreths of a dollar per stream. So to make one dollar it would have to be played 167 times. Like this song, Money Right, by the band Wise Old Moon.

Ambi: money right song

Wise Old Moon released their first studio album on Spotify last year and recieved quite a bit of local radio airplay. But vocalist and songwriter Connor Millican doesn’t believe royalties are enough to pay the bills.

MILLICAN: I don’t really see my source of income being from these royalties anyway. It’s just antiquated, you know. 

Millican says a musician’s goal is to get your music out there. And he is sympathetic to the radio bradcasters’ position. If higher costs means less radio play, it would mean fewer people would know about his band and come to their shows. And the shows are where they really make money.

MILLICAN: Somebody wrote a message on one of our social media things, I hadn’t heard of you guys, but after hearing your song on the radio, I’m now a new fan. So I think there’s a lot of ways it can benefit you. 

So far, 120 congressmen have signed on to co-sponsor the Local Radio Freedom Act. Hanna Klingberg, Columbia Radio News.


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