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Commentary: Musicians deserve to be paid for use of their work

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By Jennifer Bendall
Monday, April 26, 2010

Congress is poised to close a loophole in copyright law that allows AM and FM music radio stations to earn billions in ad revenue every year without compensating the artists and musicians who created the songs listeners tune in to hear. The Performance Rights Act has been approved by the Senate and House judiciary committees. And representatives from musicFIRST (Fairness in Radio Starting Today) and the National Association of Broadcasters are meeting at the request of members of Congress to find common ground on the issue.

It should not be too hard to do. After all, everyone deserves to be paid for their work. Local artist Crystal Waters had a big hit in 1991 with the song "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)." Her 1994 hit "100% Pure Love" had one of the longest reigns on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. "Say . . . If You Feel Alright" hit the Top 40 in 1997. Her most recent hit was "Destination Calabria" in 2008. Her music is played on the radio today. But Crystal and other area artists don't get a penny for those performances .

The music community has been fighting since the early days of radio to close the copyright loophole. Other radio platforms -- satellite radio, Internet radio and cable TV music channels -- pay performance royalties. Even AM and FM music radio stations that stream their signal online -- same music, same DJs, same ads -- pay performance royalties. They do not pay for over-the-air broadcasts.

Artists and musicians enjoy a radio performance right in almost every other country. Those that do not have a radio performance right include Iran, North Korea, China and Rwanda. American music is played on the radio around the world. But American artists and musicians are not compensated for use of their work even in countries that have a radio performance right because we do not have a right here. We are losing about $100 million a year in foreign performance royalties.

And broadcasters themselves cannot honestly oppose paying for the music they play at the same time they are asking cable systems to pay them for use of their TV programs through retransmission consent agreements.

Big corporate radio groups do not like the Performance Rights Act, but we want to make sure that small and minority-owned radio stations are not hurt by this new payment. So about 75 percent of all music radio stations will pay $5,000 a year or less to clear the rights for all the music they use. Some could pay as little as $100 a year.

We know that radio stations were hurt by the economic downturn. But radio is on the rebound. Corporate radio stock prices are soaring, and independent experts say radio revenue will jump 17 percent over the next four years. We want to make sure they continue to do well. That's why 90 percent of radio stations will not begin making royalty payments until three years after the bill is signed into law.

Opponents call it a performance tax. A copyright royalty payment is not a tax, never was, never will be. They claim most of the money goes to big foreign-owned record labels. It doesn't. Most of it will go directly to artists and musicians. And those record companies are right here in the United States where they pay employees and taxes. They contend it would just benefit big-name artists. Not true. It benefits all artists and musicians.

Today, feature and legacy artists, one-hit wonders, background singers and session musicians are fighting for a little respect, fighting for what's right, and fighting for fair pay for radio airplay. Bendall is executive director of the musicFIRST Coalition, an advocacy group representing recording artists and musicians.


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