Radio royalty bill clears Senate hurdle

Bennett, Bono, Crow embroiled in fight

An effort to pass a bill requiring broadcasters to pay performers when their music is played over the air cleared another hurdle Thursday as the legislation gained approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The legislation has triggered a bitter fight that has pitted artists and the recording industry, backed by a star-studded list of lobbying performers like Tony Bennett, Bono and Sheryl Crow, against broadcasters, who have not minced words in stating their opposition over the airwaves. Each side has amassed a bipartisan list of lawmakers to make their case.

A similar Performance Rights bill was passed by the House Judiciary Committee in May, although it is unclear when the legislation will come to a floor vote in either chamber. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval came in a voice vote, and some senators indicated that they wanted to continue to work on a few items to refine the bill.

Jennifer Bendall, executive director of the MusicFirst Coalition, which is leading the lobbying effort in support of the legislation, said they are “making unprecedented progress.”

“Two congressional committees have now approved a bill to create a fair performance right on radio. We ask broadcasters and the new leadership at the NAB to join with us,” she said.

The effort to pass such a bill extends back generations, and the victory in the Judiciary Committee is a significant step forward as previous efforts have stalled.

Broadcasters argue that such payments will be devastating to stations already struggling in a sluggish ad market, and that it ignores the promotional value that free radio airplay provides.

Countering the Judiciary Committee approval of the bill, the National Assn. of Broadcasters on Thursday unveiled the results of a poll it conducted through Wilson Research Strategies showing some 75% of likely voters do not support a “performance fee,” although MusicFirst has objected to the way that the broadcast lobby has characterized the legislation as akin to a tax. The NAB also says 251 House lawmakers and 26 senators have signed a competing resolution, the Local Radio Freedom Act, which opposes any new royalties placed on radio stations.

NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton said in a statement, “Simply put, a performance tax is bad for free, local radio. It’s bad for radio’s 235 million weekly listeners. And it’s bad for the legions of new and legacy artists whose careers were launched and nurtured by free radio airplay.”

Artists are not compensated when their songs are played over the airwaves, but songwriters are. And performers also receive royalties when their music is played on satellite and Internet radio.

Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who introduced the bill in February along with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), said in a statement, “We will still have a lot of work to do and I strongly encourage the National Assn. of Broadcasters to work with us, work with the artists and the music industry, and help us reach an agreement that protects broadcasters while ensuring that artists are compensated fairly.”

Leahy and Hatch introduced an amendment that allows smaller and noncommercial radio stations to pay a flat fee based on their gross revenues, an effort to address concerns that the Performance Rights Act would force some broadcasters off the air or into the red.

Leahy’s amendment also includes provisions to ensure the legislation doesn’t cut into the existing royalties for songwriters, as well as another provision to make sure that artists “actually receive their share of royalties when their music is played.” Record labels also would receive a share of the royalties under the bill.

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