Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” is more than just a catchy tune. It’s a feminist anthem and civil rights statement that defined a generation. But it didn’t earn Franklin a dime in radio royalties.
Federal law determines that royalty payments from radio stations go to the song’s writers and publishers, not the performers — unless they also happen to own the copyright, as many savvy artists do. So, each of the hundreds of times a day that “Respect” Is broadcast, the payments go to the estate of the song’s writer, the long-deceased Otis Redding.
It’s a system that has alway been exploitive of singers and musicians, even the most iconic of them, but at least for most of the last century artists could rely on record sales to replace their lost income. Today, the shifting economics of the music industry have fundamentally changed this dynamic. As record sales continue to plummet and labels make up more of the difference by swallowing higher percentages of concert revenues, musicians deserve another source of income.
Congress has a chance to provide one, by creating a system in which radio royalties are shared among the songwriters, singers, and other musicians. Under the current system, organizations such as the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers and Broadcast Music Inc. collect payments from radio stations every time they play a copyrighted song. These organizations, in turn, pay the song’s owners. Royalty payments vary wildly, but they can add up to serious cash for the owners of popular songs. Adele’s 2010 mega-hit “Rolling in the Deep” reportedly earned Adele, her co-songwriter Paul Epworth, and her record label $500,000 in radio royalties in 2012 — and that’s before record sales, digital downloads, and licensing fees. And the “mailbox money” from radio royalties has often been a lucrative form of income for older songwriters. Don McLean reportedly earns $300,000 year, mostly in royalties, from his 1971 hit “American Pie” — due to both the original recording’s enduring popularity on radio as well as that of a Madonna cover version from 2000.
Traditionally, radio stations have argued that musicians benefit from the airplay as a form of promotion, and that artists can readily make up the lost revenue in increased record and ticket sales driven by the exposure radio can generate. But that argument is stuck in the 20th century. As music sales decline, so does the promotional value of radio airplay. Musicians who still tour at least get the benefit of higher ticket sales, but session musicians or one-hit wonders who no longer perform live are out of luck. And while it’s true that radio corporations are losing market share to their online competitors like Pandora and Spotify, they can’t really argue poverty, ether. Although terrestrial radio might seem outdated, last year the industry raked in $17 billion in revenue, which still dwarfs that of their digital competitors. (Unlike terrestrial radio, streaming services are legally required to pay royalties to performers.)
The movement for royalties reform is slowly gaining steam, and organizations such as I Respect Music have launched social media campaigns that are helping to give it some much needed grass-roots support. Another group, the Content Creators Coalition, hosted a concert in New York earlier this year to raise awareness about the issue. David Byrne, the frontman for the Talking Heads, as well as Mike Mills, the guitarist for R.E.M., both performed. But musicians need more than just high-profile backers to win them the royalties they are due.
Representative Jerrold Nadler, a Democrat who represents parts of New York City, has circulated a discussion draft of a bill that would guarantee payments for performers as well as song owners. Earlier this year, Nadler became the ranking Democrat on the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet, the perfect platform from which to push royalties reform. He should propose legislation sooner rather than later. Nadler shouldn’t have to worry about congressional gridlock. Many important music centers, such as Nashville, are in red states. Republicans can well understand the value of artists being rewarded for their hard work.
The music industry is changing rapidly, and old-fashioned radio stations are right to worry about the industry’s future. But it’s the artists who generate the fan interest needed to keep the industry afloat. Congress and the radio industry should give them the support they deserve.