A Grammy Town Hall meeting tonight (Feb. 6) sought to kick off a grassroots movement aimed at passage of the Performance Rights Act, a bill re-introduced two days ago that would require U.S. terrestrial radio stations to pay performance royalties to artists, musicians and master recording owners.

A bi-partisan group of the bill’s House of Representatives co-sponsors – House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) – joined Supremes singer Mary Wilson and veteran manager Simon Renshaw onstage at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Also in the crowd at the Recording Academy event were Sam Moore, an early advocate for performers’ royalties from radio; songwriter Lamont Dozier; and Josh Groban. Representatives from SoundExchange, indie labels’ body A2IM and the RIAA, as well as labor unions such as AFTRA, were also in attendance.

Conyers said the performance rights compensation issue had been taken up in two dozen Congresses since the 1920s. What is turning the tide now, Conyers and others said, have been the successes in getting performers’ compensation from satellite and Internet radio; bi-partisan sponsorship of the Performance Rights Act; simultaneous chairman-level sponsorship of the bill in both the House and Senate (the latter under Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT); and an organized music industry coalition (under the umbrella of MusicFIRST) in support.

“It’s never gotten this far in our history,” Recording Academy VP of advocacy and government relations Daryl Friedman told Billboard.

Advocates of the bill say the U.S. stands nearly alone among industrialized countries (with the exception of Iran, China and North Korea) in not compensating artists and performers for airplay. Currently, U.S. terrestrial radio stations only compensate songwriters whose works are broadcast.

Since U.S. terrestrial radio doesn’t compensate performers, foreign radio stations don’t pay U.S. performers when their songs are played abroad.
Friedman says estimates range from “tens of millions to hundreds of millions” as far as how much money for U.S. performers, musicians and master owners is locked up from radio stations abroad due to lack of a reciprocal arrangement in the U.S.

Issa dismissed complaints by the National Broadcasters’ Association that the bill is an unfair tax on radio stations to the tune of $7 billion. “Give us the counter-offer,” said Issa, noting that there were exemptions for small and non-commercial broadcasters. “We’ll cut a deal…if you need time to adjust your business model, we’ll work with you.”

Options for doing so could include a phase-in period, such as a one-year exemption on new music, said Issa, arguing that the radio business should evolve away from “a business model that depends on something for nothing.”

Andy Schuon, a former CBS Radio executive in the audience now with Ticketmaster Entertainment, noted at the event that radio has enjoyed margins of up to 75% on some music formats, such smooth jazz or Jack-type formats.

The Supremes' Wilson countered the traditional claim by radio broadcasters that airplay should be considered a promotional tool that drives sales and touring for artists. She said anyone who wanted to buy the Supremes' music has likely long since done so, and that many heritage artists are no longer able to tour--but that radio continues to reap the benefit of classic songs.

Artists have feared retribution by radio if they speak out for a performance right, said Renshaw, whose artists the Dixie Chicks felt the wrath of country radio after singer Natalie Maines’ anti-Bush comments.

In an effort to establish an official governmental record of artist support for the bill, Issa said a page will be created at the House Judiciary Committee’s Web site where artists can register their name and contact information.

As for whether the Obama Administration, which has been busy trying to pass an economic stimulus package, has indicated support for the two-day-old reintroduced Performance Rights Act, Conyers said, “They have not to my knowledge spoken on it, but there are couple of [other] things on their plate right now.”