It’s pretty weird when you think about it: when you hear “I Will Always Love You” performed by Whitney Houston on AM/FM radio in the US, neither the Houston estate nor her label get paid. But songwriter Dolly Parton does receive compensation, along with her publisher. We love Dolly a ton, but this seems unfair. That’s because it is.
Things look much different in the rest of the world, where performers, labels, songwriters and publishers ALL get paid for radio play. Consider how certain genres of music—like jazz and r&b—are powered by performances. “Respect,” belted out by Aretha Franklin. “My Favorite Things” as interpreted by the great John Coltrane. Yet due to a weird loophole in US law that exempts radio stations from paying performers or labels, countless American artists have been unable to collect money owed to them for airplay here and abroad. The problem is particularly acute for performers who aren’t in a position to tour, such as older, so-called “legacy” artists. When it comes down to it, the lack of a public performance right for over-the-air broadcasting amounts to the government giving away music to the rest of the world for free.
And that’s how the big radio conglomerates want it. For years, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) has successfully thwarted attempts by Congress to close this loophole once and for all. We’re not sure why it doesn’t bother the radio giants that, by not paying performers, America is keeping company with North Korea and Iran. But it bothers us. And we’re not alone.
Currently, there’s a growing movement to establish a US public performance right for AM/FM radio. We’ve been part of this push for 15 years, along with the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS), the MusicFIRST Coalition and new advocacy voices like Content Creators Coalition and #irespectmusic. Trust us, it’s gonna get done.
Many digital services would like to see AM/FM radio pay a performance right, too. The fact that webcasters and satellite radio pay performers and labels as well as songwriters and publishers amounts to a competitive disadvantage for newer forms of radio. Basically, the American federal government is giving giant commercial broadcasters a subsidy—one that’s gone on for nearly a century. It’s high time to put an end to it.
You can help.
MusicFIRST has an online tool to help you make clear to your representatives that the current system is broken and distorts the global marketplace for music. Worse, it leaves countless of deserving artists without a way to earn money from their performances. We encourage you to support any and all efforts to close this loophole once and for all.
There’s a lot of stuff to figure out on the road to a more functional music ecosystem—from royalty rate-setting to rights management. But until this fundamental disparity is addressed, it will be difficult to achieve progress in other areas. Sometimes in the music industry there are differences of opinion based on history market position and other factors. But this is something that most folks can agree on. Now let’s make it happen.