Radio Royalties: Reprising Ol' Blue Eyes' Battle

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.

Simson foresees a long and difficult fight. "We're committed to a multiyear campaign," he said. "We know this won't be easy."

Labor Movements: Get a Scorecard

The building trades unions have retained a veteran duo to run their lobbying operation. Hired for the year at least were Christopher D. Heinz, until recently the top lobbyist for the carpenters union, and Michael L. Tiner, formerly with the food and commercial workers.

Rod Bennett, who had been the top lobbyist for the building trades, has moved to the Laborers' International Union. He will report to Bevin Albertani, who will take over both legislation and politics from her soon-to-retire boss, Donald J. Kaniewski. Got it?

Update for the Record

So you say not much has passed in Congress this year. Well, that's not completely true.

One event presaged in this column has crossed the finish line. In late March, President Bush signed into law a measure that renamed the headquarters building of the Department of Education after President Lyndon B. Johnson. The legislation was championed by a group of lobbyists including Lyndon K. Boozer, an AT&T lobbyist and son of Johnson's late secretary, Yolanda Garza Boozer. Boozer is named for the late president, just as the building now is.

Hires of the Week

Donna A. Harman is the new president of the American Forest & Paper Association -- for keeps. She had been interim chief executive.

Linda Denny, interim president of the Women's Business Enterprise National Council, an advocate for women's businesses, was named the permanent president.

Steven C. Anderson continues to put his stamp on the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Chrissy Shott, who was media director at Anderson's old stomping ground, the National Restaurant Association, will handle media at the drugstore group, which Anderson now leads. Her boss, Chris Krese, was also a former Anderson employee.

David L. Thompson, a former Senate aide, joined Independent Sector, the lobby for nonprofit groups, as director of legislative affairs.

Phil Blando and John Murray, late of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, and Christopher Assenmacher, who had been with Automatic Data Processing, have joined forces as AB+M Partners, a health-care consultancy.

Sean Richardson, former chief of staff to Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), joined Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart. And K. Conwell Smith, a former aide to Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), was hired by the Federation of American Hospitals.

Peter A. Leon, a former aide to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), will be joining Lent Scrivner & Roth.

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