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US musicians demand radio royalties

By Philippa Thomas
BBC News, Washington

I bet you cannot guess the answer to this one.

The Four Tops, with Abdul "Duke" Fakir at top left
Abdul "Duke" Fakir wants royalties for his Four Tops performances

In which countries - apart from the United States - do terrestrial radio stations NOT pay performers for their songs?

Iran, China, North Korea and Rwanda.

Artists and their record labels are calling on members of Congress to bring the US into line with the rest of the world - and with satellite, internet and cable radio stations - by passing the Performance Rights Act.

They say it is a question of fair play for air play. It will not just be the big names that would benefit, they maintain, but emerging artists too, and all the backing singers and session players who work together to shape the sound you hear.

'We sang it'

I caught up with an artist who has been petitioning for payment for decades.

Abdul "Duke" Fakir is the sole surviving member of the Motown group, the Four Tops.

He could not possibly count the number of times hits he sang on - like Reach Out, I'll Be There or Baby, I Need Your Loving - have been played on the radio.

But he says it was the writers who got to count the cheques coming in.

"We sang it. We made it come alive. Don't we get paid for something?"

Millions of times a day, songs are played on stations across the United States. The artist and the record company get exposure... It's a symbiotic relationship that's worked for so long.
Paul Johnson
Radio station manager

Next, I met American singer songwriter Crystal Waters, in her home recording studio in Maryland.

She made the big time with the pop-dance hit Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless) 18 years ago.

Its catchy refrain - la da dee, la dee da - is one of those classic choruses you just cannot get out of your head.

The song has a long shelf-life - it has been sampled and remixed, and is even being re-released next month.

But as a singer, she is not getting paid - here or anywhere else in the world.

She has heard her voice coming back to her on the streets in Portugal, in the airport in Moscow, on dancefloors everywhere.

But because she is American, she gets paid nothing.

American terrestrial radio does not pay any performer, homegrown or foreign, so in retaliation, international markets do not pay performance fees to any American artists.

Crystal Waters says her lawyer reckons she would have made around $700,000 (£428,000) if the new proposals had been law back in 1991.

"It's my right", she says. "It's my intellectual property. I've got two children, and if my voice is still out there, I want the money to go to them when I die."

'Song tax'

So, are you convinced? It seems a straightforward argument. Here comes the other side.

At the Star Radio group in Fredericksburg, Virginia, it took us a matter of minutes to tour four radio stations - studios packed in side by side airing country, classic rock, urban, and Hispanic radio.

It is a very efficient operation. The group prides itself on providing live DJs, not just a playlist.

It says it is "rooted" in the community, inviting in listeners, and getting out to raise funds for good causes.

For these stations and hundreds of others, there is now a lot at stake.

Crystal Waters
Crystal Waters wants her children to get money from her performances

Denis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters told me "this bill could have a decimating impact. It could force many stations into bankruptcy or closure".

And he says the timing is awful, smack in the middle of the worst advertising recession for radio since the Great Depression.

As American radio sees it, this is not a performance royalty - it is a "song tax".

In Fredericksburg, station manager Paul Johnson has calculated that if the Performance Rights Act goes through, it will cost him $20,000 a year.

"That could mean somebody losing their job," he tells me.

What is more, he says performers are already paid - in airtime.

This is how he explained it, as we walked down a corridor lined with gold and platinum discs signed by grateful artists.

"Millions of times a day, songs are played on stations across the United States. The artist and the record company get exposure, fans buy the records and download the songs. Basically there's a nice barter service. It's a symbiotic relationship that's worked for so long."

He describes the campaign for new fees as "laughable".

Retribution

It is an argument that has been going back and forth since the first days of radio in the 1920s.

But now that it might actually be resolved with a vote in Washington, there is a growing bitterness between the rival camps.

From radio, we hear that this is a cynical move by record labels desperate to make money, as they lose market share in a world of instant downloads.

Words like "shameful", "shabby" and "abusive" are used.

From the music industry comes the accusation that some radio stations are refusing to play artists who back the bill.

In the words of the musicFIRST coalition, which is campaigning in favour of the new rules, "there's an offensive effort to silence artists through threats and retribution".

The bill is moving to the Senate.

The lobbyists are ready, the press releases are flying.

And since music is a global business, the verdict of Congress will have a global impact.



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