Radio Royalties: Reprising Ol' Blue Eyes' Battle

John Simson, executive director of SoundExchange, which represents artists and music labels.
John Simson, executive director of SoundExchange, which represents artists and music labels. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Sometimes in Washington it takes a while for issues to ripen. Sometimes decades.

Take the quest of musical artists and their labels to collect royalty payments for their recordings. Frank Sinatra started fighting that battle in the 1950s, and tried again in the 1980s. Mary Wilson of the Supremes gave it a whirl this year, but so far to no avail.

Their complaint: Songwriters receive royalties when their compositions are played on AM and FM radio. But neither musicians nor the music's owners get a dime. When you hear Aretha Franklin singing "R-E-S-P-E-C-T" on FM radio, the estate of Otis Redding Jr., the song's composer, is paid a small sum, but Franklin gets n-o-t-h-i-n-g.

Doesn't seem fair? Well, John L. Simson hopes that members of Congress will be outraged enough to finally change the law. As executive director of SoundExchange, a D.C.-based group that represents recording artists and record companies, Simson helps oversee a coalition called MusicFirst that will soon bring top-name singers to plead the case on Capitol Hill.

He acknowledges that the effort will probably take years and a ton of money because its primary opponent is one of Washington's most powerful lobbies, the National Association of Broadcasters.

The NAB is already attacking the proposed royalty as a "performance tax," and spokesman Dennis Wharton warns that the levy, which would amount to millions of dollars a year, would threaten the financial well-being of AM and FM stations, many of which are small. Besides, Wharton said, artists and their labels already get rich from the publicity that the stations' airtime provides.

"Were it not for radio airplay of music, most artists would not be as successful as they are and record labels would not enjoy the revenue stream that they've had through the years," Wharton said.

Simson scoffs at such reasoning. Satellite radio companies and webcasters have in recent years agreed to pay fees to performers and their labels (though the rate of payment from online music streaming is still in dispute.) It would be a small, logical step, he said, to force AM-FM radio to pony up as well -- something European, Australian and Japanese broadcasters do.

Simson, 57, knows firsthand the frustration of not being paid royalties. He was a singer and musician, and once opened for Jethro Tull on its Aqualung tour in Upstate New York. "I got so successful from that concert," he joked, "I went to law school."

He spent years managing the careers of singers such as Mary Chapin Carpenter and took over SoundExchange in 2000. Now he is working with other lobbies such as the Recording Industry Association of America to press for the radio royalty. Congressional hearings are expected this summer.

Simson's coalition plans to appeal to lawmakers by bringing to Washington a few of the nearly 140 celebrity singers who have joined its cause. (They would certainly get a heartier welcome than record-company execs.) Some possible visitors include Sheryl Crow and Don Henley, Simson said.

In response, the NAB will try to avoid spotlighting big radio networks and appeal to lawmakers by making sure they hear from more sympathetic mom-and-pop station owners from their districts and states.

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