At the Artists’ Pay for Radio Play Rally at Le Poisson Rouge in New York on Tuesday night (Feb. 25), Byrne joined hosts musician Marc Ribot and "Freeloading" author Chris Ruen as well as a slew of other artists, including Tift Merritt, REM's Mike Mills and Rosanne Cash (via video) as well as the Future Music Coalition's Kevin Erickson to perform and/or rally for performance royalties for terrestrial radio airplay.
The crux of the issue: The United States is one of only several countries (including “Iran and North Korea”) where artists don’t receive a performance royalty when their song is played on terrestrial radio. While songwriters receive airplay royalties, musicians who perform on a song and artists who popularize a song originally written by somebody else, like Biz Markie and "Just A Friend" which is based on Freddie Scott's "(You) Got What I Need," have never been compensated in the U.S. Furthermore, when an American artist's music is played on the radio internationally, performance royalties for the artist are withheld, even if that country has different laws in place, leaving millions of unclaimed dollars on the table.
This is an issue artists and labels have fought with terrestrial radio over for decades. When sound recording became copyrighted under law in 1972, radio broadcasters were able to claim an exemption from paying performance royalties on the grounds that the free exposure artists' gained from radio play lead to record sales and was payment enough. In 2009, the Performance Rights Act was introduced by members of the Senate and the House of Representatives to remove that exemption, but the bill failed to pass congress. Last fall, Rep. Mel Watt introduced new legislation to create a performance right for broadcast radio, the Free Market Royalty Act that stalled after he left the House of Representatives. However, for the first time since 1976 Congress is reviewing and rewriting copyright law with could present a new opportunity for a change in legislation.
Erickson of the Future of Music Coalition, a D.C.-based non-profit which advocates on behalf of artists, remarked on the past failure of legislation for the issue, “Why is there a brick wall? Because multibillion dollar broadcasting companies like Clear Channel and their lobbyists at the National Association of Broadcasters have stopped it. In these debates, they purport to speak for mom and pop radio, and local radio. This is hilarious because these are the same people who because of media deregulation and consolidation, bought up local radio stations, erased their local character, fired all the DJs and replaced them with robots that play nearly the same playlists in every city. These people do not care about local (. . .) If the creative community speaks as one voice, we can finally bury the pernicious notion that musicians are obligated to work for free and be grateful for the exposure."*
Though a round of boos erupted from the crowd at the mention of Clear Channel, it should be noted that last year Clear Channel struck several unprecedented deals with a number of labels, including with the Big Machine Label Group and Warner Music Group to pay artists performance royalties. Bob Pitman told Billboard, "There are plenty of people in radio who think we already give the record labels so much by giving them free promotion to break their artists, and they say that ought to be enough, but clearly that is not enough, or there wouldn't be a decades-long battle over it."
There were more boos when Cash (who spoke via video) said she received only $104 from Spotify last year. Unlike terrestrial radio, however, Spotify and other legal Internet radio and streaming services do pay artist performance royalties—though both digital platforms and artists have expressed their dissatisfaction with royalty rates.
The newly formed Content Creators Coalition, which sponsored the event, could serve as a rallying point for artists frustrated with what they perceive as unfair business practices. At the event, the CCC asked attendees to sign a petition to congress and donate funds to the organization or purchase one of ten event posters for $100 each.
The evening alternated between performances of popular cover songs and statements on the issue that were impassioned, but at times lacked concrete details or demonstrated a full understanding of the issue at hand.
Ribot passionately proclaimed to a cheering audience, “The Content Creators Coalition started because those that are doing this are no longer going to be used in the manufacturing of consent in the destruction of our art forms. We are not going to be told to shut up and play."
Though the crowd was enthusiastic, the majority of fan fair was reserved for Byrne. Each time he took the stage a sea of iPhones rose, ignoring the request to keep the public performance private.
*This quote from Kevin Erickson was lengthend on 2/27/14 at 3:42pm to include more context