Michael Huppe: It's Time to Honor Frank Sinatra's Call for Radio Fairness (Guest Op-Ed)

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Frank Sinatra performs during the reopening of The Chicago Theater on Sept. 10, 1986.

Frank Sinatra earned the moniker "Chairman of the Board" because he stood up for what he believed. That included the rights of music creators, so much so that on December 12, 1988 -- 30 years ago today -- he called on fellow artists to join him in a collective effort to get a broadcast performance right, requiring terrestrial radio to pay royalties to performers.  

Offended that artists didn't receive a dime when their music was played on the radio, Frank Sinatra wrote letters to some of the best-known artists of the day -- Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen -- with an eye toward building "a unified effort from fellow recording artists" to get Congress to pass legislation so that artists received royalties, just like writers and publishers, when radio spins their recordings.

Sinatra pointed out that most foreign countries do recognize performers' rights and urged a "unified effort" by performers in this country: "Our goals can only be achieved with the strong support of recording artists like yourself."

Thirty years ago, airplay on the radio was viewed as a way to entice music lovers to buy albums in a record store. But the music industry has transformed radically in the years since Sinatra's letter.

The Internet ushered in a new era as music sales shifted from physical stores to downloads to digital streaming services. The economics of listening changed with it: with the explosion of digital services, "listening" went from a promotional hook to one of the primary ways that artists and labels get paid for their work (now representing 75% of recording revenue).

Everything changed, with one exception: terrestrial radio broadcasters continued to lobby heavily to avoid any requirement that they pay performers for their music. The Big Radio broadcasters earn $14 billion a year in revenue, but performers still don't see a dime of it. Think about that for a moment: it's the music of Frank Sinatra and countless other artists that draws radio's audience, but they or their estates get paid nothing.

Does that seem fair to you? Frank Sinatra didn't think so, and he wanted to rally artists to make it right. He understood that if the artists making the music lent their support, they could make progress together. He suggested building an artist group to compel Congress to pass legislation.

In 1988, it didn't come to pass. But Frank Sinatra would have been proud to see, thirty years later, artists like McCartney, Katy Perry and Pink put their weight behind the Music Modernization Act. Because of their persistent collective action, the historic legislation cleared Congress and is now law.

This was Frank Sinatra's vision -- music creators standing together in the interest of fair compensation from those who profit from the use of their work. Now, it is time to honor his call to correct the most egregious injustice in the music industry. Broadcasters' free ride on the backs of artists wasn't fair in 1988. And it's even more unfair today as FM radio competes for free with streaming services that rightly pay artists for their work.

And it gets worse! The broadcasters' fleecing amounts to a double-whammy for artists. Because American broadcasters refuse to pay performers here, broadcasters in most foreign countries "return the favor" by stiffing (only) American artists for plays overseas. This tit-for-tat is bad for the industry, and it's a lose-lose for American creators who are forced to leave hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties uncollected overseas because their own country's laws don't protect their work.

Efforts by the music industry to find a common ground of "fairness" with the broadcasters have thus far failed. That is why we need to heed Sinatra's call to organize and demand that Congress pass legislation to give creators royalties when their music is played on terrestrial radio.

Whether you're a featured artist, background musician or studio producer -- or just love listening to great tunes -- the issue of terrestrial radio fairness affects you. Sinatra understood that. If anything, the points he made in 1988 are even more true today. It's time to honor Sinatra's call from three decades ago and stand together so all creators are treated fairly.

Michael Huppe is President and CEO of SoundExchange, the non-profit organization that has distributed more than $5 billion in digital performance royalties to recording artists and rights owners since its inception in 2003.