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Performance Rights vs Radio Freedom – Who’s a Musician to Believe?

James ReamsJBy Special Guest Contributor, Bluegrass recording artist James Reams
Digging through political doublespeak on the Internet is worse than having a dentist digging around in my mouth. It was like trying to swim in quicksand. I kept getting sucked in…deeper and deeper with each click of the mouse. And the articles weren’t short ones either, many had clickable references to other pertinent articles and off I would go, down another rabbit hole leaving behind a whole trail of Internet cookie crumbs. Okay, I think I mixed up a whole batch of metaphors there, but you get the idea. To say I was confounded would be putting it mildly. But I thought that as a musician, I should be informed about potential legislation that could affect my bank statement.

Before you start writing a comment, I just want you to know that I’m not taking sides on this issue. To paraphrase a favorite TV character, I just plan to present the facts — short and sweet. And then maybe two of us will be aware of what’s going on about performance rights, free market royalties and radio airplay.

Legislation for Performance Rights Act H.R. 848 was first presented to Congress in 2009 and, though the bill died in committee, the issue has been heatedly debated in recent months with the February, 2013 introduction of the Local Radio Freedom Act (H.Con.Res. 16). In September of 2013, HR 3219 the Free Market Royalty Act was introduced. Hotly contended in all this flurry of legislature is the core issue, should AM/FM radio stations in the US be required to pay performers for broadcasting their sound recordings over the air?

The National Association of Broadcasters is opposed to a performance fee that must be borne by radio stations citing that local radio stations provide valuable community services (emergency alerts, local news/weather, etc.) and already provide free advertising and promotion for the recording industry. Non-commercial stations that are supported by listeners and tax dollars as well as college stations were presented as being particularly at risk of shutting down because of increased fees.

It should be no surprise that the Future of Music Coalition, SAG-AFTRA, the American Federation of Musicians, the International Association of Independent Recording Artists and the Recording Academy all support the performance fee. These agencies point out that AM/FM radio is the only type of radio that doesn’t pay performers for playing their sound recordings (only songwriters and publishers get paid). Besides the US, very few countries do not compensate performers when their songs are played on the radio and local radio is alive and well in most industrialized countries despite any additional costs performance royalties may have imposed on them.

I found out that the now dead Performance Rights Act did take into consideration the plight of non-commercial and college radio stations by suggesting a cap on the amount those stations would pay out annually for unlimited use of recorded music ($500 to $1000). On the other hand, I also read that fewer artists are providing promo copies of their albums to radio stations, prompting radio broadcasters to feel like they would be required to pay for the music twice – once when they purchased the album and again whenever they played a recording.

Opposition to the performance fee also claim that AM/FM radio could be forced to adopt talk radio formats over music, a thought that sent shivers up my spine. As a performer I think it would be great to get paid any time one of my songs is played, and not just when I’m the songwriter. But I also want my songs to GET played and if the performance fee is going to affect play time for my music then I’ve just stabbed myself in the back.

Seems to me that there should be some sort of happy medium and maybe that’s what the Free Market Royalty Act will provide. Check out this site from Music First (pdf file) to find answers to the most frequently asked questions about this Act. Since it was introduced in September, 2013, there have been a number of articles/postings about this piece of potential legislation but it seems to me to be the same arguments pro/con that surrounded the Performance Rights Act.

I’m not an expert on these topics but I am a voter. And these resolutions may end up on a ballot someday, perhaps even in my lifetime. As musicians and music lovers, we owe it to ourselves to be educated about these issues, even if it leaves us in a coma.

Your thoughts? Contact James via his web site at www.jamesreams.com. Better yet…the National Association of Broadcasters has posted a list of House Representatives that are co-sponsoring the Local Radio Freedom Act resolution. You may want to contact your representative and let them know your feelings on the subject.

Originally published on CBA Webzine – January 17, 2014. Printed with permission of the author.

James Reams has been the bandleader for James Reams & The Barnstormers for over 20 years. Nominated by IBMA in 2002 as Emerging Artist of the Year and Recording Event of the Year, this nationally-known band provides a contemporary take on traditional bluegrass; blending it with innovation and vitality to create their own branch on the “roots” tree. Coming from a family of traditional singers in southeastern Kentucky, James has played both old-time and bluegrass music since he was just a sprout. Known as an “Ambassador of Bluegrass” for his dedication to and deep involvement in the thriving bluegrass and Americana music community, James is involved in just about everything related to bluegrass. For the past 14 years, James has coordinated the Park Slope Bluegrass & Old Time Music Jamboree. And, in 2013, he released his second full-length DVD documentary, “Making History with Pioneers of Bluegrass” which he hosted and produced. More information is available on his website: www.jamesreams.com.

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