Since the dawn of radio, the United States has been and remains the only major country in the world where terrestrial radio pays no royalties to performers or recorded-music copyright owners of the songs it plays. While the more than 8,300 AM and FM stations across the country pay royalties to songwriters and publishers, they have never paid performers or copyright holders, although streaming services and satellite radio do.
Last year, Reps. Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Darrell Issa (R-CA) introduced the bipartisan American Music Fairness Act, which aims to address that situation. “The American Music Fairness Act will protect the artists we know as they make the music we love,” Deutch said. “For the first time, artists would see a piece of the massive profits made on the backs of their creative work. Congress must end the unfair deal AM/FM radio has forced on musicians.” The Senate introduced its version of the bill in September. The National Association of Broadcasters says its attempts to negotiate a rate have been rebuffed by record labels.
Below, Grammy, Emmy and Oscar-winning musician, actor and activist Common makes a case for the act.
The legendary artist and activist Harry Belafonte once famously said that “the role of art isn’t just to show life as it is, but to show life as it should be.” And he has lived true to that maxim, spending so much of his own life at the forefront of so many fights to expand fairness and justice in this country and around the world — from the civil rights movement to today.
Just last week, I was proud to stand with Harry and so many of our fellow artists as we saw yet another victory for fairness and justice take place in Washington, when the House Judiciary Committee voted in favor of the American Music Fairness Act and advanced the bill to the House floor.
For decades, artists and music creators have fought for fair pay when their songs are played on AM/FM radio — but to no avail. That’s because big radio corporations are protected by a loophole in the law that allows them to profit off playing our music without sharing a single penny with the performers who made it possible. That’s not right. Even as little as artists may receive on streaming platforms (which also isn’t right), we at least get paid something — and that’s more than these billion-dollar radio corporations have ever done, despite spinning our songs millions of times.
Fairly compensating people for their hard work is a fundamental principle. Refusing to do so is morally wrong, especially when these big companies are making more than enough money to share some with the workers who made those profits possible. Think about it: How would you feel if federal law required you to do your job for free? As a society, we wouldn’t find that acceptable for any profession — so why have we allowed broadcasters to do the exact same thing to the artists who make the music we love for decades on end?
Thankfully, the American Music Fairness Act would finally address this inequity, and it would do so in a balanced way. If passed into law, the bill would change the law and require big broadcasting corporations to finally pay artists and music creators when they use our work to fill their airwaves and boost their bottom lines. But it would also protect the local radio stations that serve our communities so well, allowing them to continue to play all the music they need to thrive for less than $2 per day.
The radio loophole has a very real human cost. Most music creators are not famous names that people recognize, like myself. I’ve been extraordinarily blessed to have a career that spans 30 years — and no matter how this fight turns out, I’m going to be fine regardless.
But this fight isn’t about me. It’s about the thousands upon thousands of everyday artists whose names most people will likely never know, but whose contributions are essential to making the soundtrack to our lives. They are the session musicians and background singers, the producers and engineers who make the musical magic possible — and most of them are just regular people trying to make a living and feed their families by doing what they love. The American Music Fairness Act would help them do that by ensuring that the fruits of their labor are not only recognized and respected, but also compensated accordingly. Because for them, these songs are not a commodity — they are their livelihoods.
And perhaps most meaningfully for me, the positive changes proposed by this legislation would also have an outsized impact on communities of color, which have long been disproportionately harmed by the unjust status quo on this issue. People of color have always made up an overwhelming proportion of working artists and music creators, and that’s even more true today.
For example, according to a 2021 study from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, nearly half of the performers on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts over the previous nine years hailed from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, including 38% who were Black. And that number does not account for the countless everyday musicians of color whose names may not be listed on the chart, but who nevertheless play a crucial role in the creation of those beloved recordings.
Unfortunately, none of these artists of color (past or present) have ever received a single penny for the hundreds of thousands of times that their songs have been spun on AM/FM radio — leaving even some of our brightest stars to struggle through their golden years while big broadcast corporations continue to play and profit off their life’s work. The American Music Fairness Act would finally right this wrong and begin to make these artists and their families whole after decades of exploitation.
It’s long past time for us to correct this inequity and give artists their fair share. Many have undoubtedly already been hurt, but with the advancement of the American Music Fairness Act to the floor of the House of Representatives, we are on the verge of being able to prevent the harm from continuing for yet another generation. But we need our elected representatives in Congress to stand with us and commit to doing right by artists in order to make that happen.
I believe this is one of those moral moments where we have a chance to “show life as it should be” — and artists and our allies are meeting it. We are standing united and calling for change. And so the most important question that remains for our leaders in our nation’s capital is this: Will you continue to stand idly by and allow the unjust status quo to continue for yet another decade? Or will you stand on the side of fairness and justice in this moment and remake the world “as it should be” for generations of music creators to come?
Common is a Grammy Award-winning recording artist, actor and activist.