Sounds: The Listener

Airing Their Differences About Pay for Play

By Marc Fisher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 2, 2007

George W. Bush got perhaps his biggest laugh of the summer when he responded to a question from a voter in Nashville seeking the president's thoughts about forcing radio stations to pay royalties to performing artists:

"Maybe you've never had a president say this," Bush replied. "I have, like, no earthly idea what you're talking about. I'm totally out of my lane. I like listening to country music, if that helps."

That's probably not going to do the trick, but Congress can use all the help it can get as it tries to arbitrate the latest conflict to emerge from the digital revolution's body blow to the music industry.

Artists such as Judy Collins, Don Henley, Tony Bennett and Sam Moore (of the R&B duo Sam & Dave) argue that radio stations ought to pay for the music they play on the air -- but station owners counter that for all the promotion they do for the record industry, it's the labels that should be paying them. Lawmakers can be forgiven for feeling as if they've landed inside a fraternal brawl.

They have. This summer's lobbying effort by a new recording industry-sponsored group, MusicFirst, has breathed new life into the drive to make radio pay artists -- and not just writers and publishers -- for playing their songs, but the issue is as old as Top 40. What's different now is that the music industry, in deep trouble, is casting around for ways to make up for the steep decline in revenue that hit the recording business after digital downloading changed the business's basic structure.

"The issue here is simply, it's about fairness," folk singer Collins told a congressional panel in August. "Radio is a multibillion-dollar business built on our creativity, our passion and our soul." Collins and other artists who rose to fame singing other people's songs say they must tour well into their golden years in good part because they never got paid for all the radio play their music received.

Besides, they argue, with Internet and satellite radio stations now paying royalties to performers, why shouldn't broadcast AM and FM stations have to do the same?

Because as much as the record business is hurting, so is radio, says Dennis Wharton, executive vice president of the National Association of Broadcasters, who notes that radio revenue has been flat for several years and says his industry is in no position to carve out a new entitlement for artists.

Rep. Howard Berman, the California Democrat who chairs the House subcommittee on intellectual property, is expected to introduce a bill this month that would grant royalties from radio stations to performers -- the latest salvo in a battle that has been fought about once a decade since the 1940s.

The original fight over royalties pitted performers against both radio and the record companies. Back then, artists saw the two businesses as connected pieces of a larger system that made megabucks on the backs of the artists who provided their content.

But the record and radio industries in the '40s successfully drove a wedge between composers and songwriters on one side and performers on the other, creating an anomaly that persists to this day. Radio station owners continue to pay about 2 percent of their revenues, a total of $450 million last year, to the people who write and publish the songs played on the air, but leave it to the record companies to pay performers through their contracts for new albums.

There's no special reason to make that distinction. "It's just always been that way," says Wharton of the NAB, which has a deep interest in keeping it that way.

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