House gives go-ahead to radio-play royalties

The House Judiciary Committee approved a bill Wednesday that will, for the first time, require radio broadcasters to pay performers when their music is played on the air.

The Performance Rights Act passed by a vote of 21 to 9, even as some minority broadcasters and other groups argued that the bill could have an adverse impact on minority broadcasters. Owners of African-American radio stations even staged a protest Wednesday in front of the Detroit offices of House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers, who has championed the legislation.

The bill will move to the full House for a vote; a similar bill is currently pending in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The National Assn. of Broadcasters has waged an extensive campaign to defeat the bill, arguing that it would force broadcasters to pay royalties at the very moment that so many are in bankruptcy or are struggling to make ends meet amid the recession-fueled decline in local ad spending. Calling it a “performance tax,” the NAB questioned whether it was an issue of “fairness” given that record labels also would be collecting a share of the royalties.

But supporters of the bill say that it contains provisions for smaller broadcasters and public radio. Conyers also introduced an amendment that presents a sliding scale of royalties based on a station’s earnings. In a move designed to address concerns about the dire ad market, another provision was added to exempt stations making less than $5 million a year from paying royalties for three years. Other broadcasters would get a one-year moratorium.

Conyers also asked the Government Accountability Office for a report on the bill’s impact on broadcasters, recording artists and copyright holders.

The victory in the House Judiciary Committee comes after months of lobbying by artists themselves, including Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, who testified at a committee hearing. Abdul “Duke” Fakir of the Four Tops and Crystal Waters were present for the vote on Wednesday.

Jennifer Bendall, exec director of the Music First Coalition, which includes such groups as the Recording Academy and the Recording Industry Assn. of America, praised the move.

Corporate radio’s days of hiding behind a loophole in the copyright law are over,” Bendall said in a statement. “For over 80 years, Big Radio has had a free pass to play music. All other music platforms — satellite, cable and Internet radio stations — pay artists, musicians and rights holders for the use of their music. It’s only fair that AM and FM radio be held to the same standards.”

Dennis Wharton, exec veepee of NAB, emphasized the evidence of “bipartisan opposition” to the bill with the 21-9 vote.

“NAB applauds these nine members for standing with America’s hometown radio stations, their 235 million weekly listeners and the yet-to-break artists who will lose their No. 1 promotional platform if this bill is enacted,” he said.

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