Before House lawmakers on Tuesday, Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan argued that the right to get paid when radio stations play his music could be put in moral terms.
“The issue is one of fundamental fairness,” he said during the House Judiciary Committee hearing.
Station owners, however, contended that to do so would all but mean the difference between life and death for their stations.
“Absolutely devastating,” one said.
Musicians have been on Capitol Hill for the past month lobbying for the passage of the Performance Rights Act, which would require radio stations to compensate artists when their work is played on air, as they are obligated to do for songwriters and composers. It would reverse a tradition that dates to the early days of radio and the era when such play was viewed as of utmost promotional value.
The radio industry, meanwhile, has mounted an equal or even greater push to oppose the measure, unleashing a regular stream of press releases in which musicians are quoted talking up the value of radio airplay. Led by the National Assn. of Broadcasters, opponents are calling for a “Free Radio Act,” essentially a resolution opposing pay-when-play compensation.
The Performance Rights Act has a long list of congressional sponsors, including Reps. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. It is also backed by the MusicFirst coalition, which includes artists such as Herbie Hancock and Sheryl Crow as well as many recording industry organizations. As the most common copyright holder of the music, music labels also would be compensated in a 50-50 split with artists.
At the end of the three-hour hearing, the House Judiciary Committee was left with the prospect of a familiar outcome: an independent study to examine the issue.
In their testimony, station owners warned that a business already struggling in a declining ad market would be further hobbled if it has to make new payments to artists. Small station groups would be hit especially hard, and new artists would have a tough time finding airplay as managers weigh the costs and benefits of playing a particular song.
“The recording industry is living in a fantasy world that is divorced from the critical depressed financial position in which almost every radio station finds itself today,” said Larry Patrick, the partner in a media brokerage firm and a broadcaster with 14 stations in Wyoming.
Steve Newberry, board chairman of the National Assn. of Broadcasters, charged that the bill “attempts to create a conflict between artists and radio stations where no conflict exists.”
He directed much of his fire at the recording labels, which he claimed would “actually walk away with more money under this bill than the featured artists.”
But Mitch Bainwol, chairman-CEO of the Recording Industry Assn. of America, said that because the labels are the ones making the investment in the artists, they should share in the return. Otherwise, he said, “It would simply dry up the ability of investors to support new artists.”
He painted a picture of an ever-changing industry in which artists depend more on the value of their performances than on the sale of CDs. But broadcasters, he said, have been unwilling to even come to the table. “We just can’t find anyone to sit down with us,” he said.
He and other proponents say that the act would merely put the U.S. in line with other countries. And the bill takes smaller stations into account. Those with “under $1.25 million in revenue enjoy a flat fee amounting to about $400 a month for unlimited use of music,” he said, and there will be special breaks for public radio.
Corgan said, “Simply put, if a station plays a song, both the author and the performer should be paid. These particular performances must have value to the stations or they wouldn’t be playing them.”
Some lawmakers said they were simply vexed. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) said the situation was at an “impasse” and indicated that she was caught between wanting to make sure small- and minority-owned stations were not hurt by the act, on the one hand, and the right of musicians to be compensated for their work on the other.