The Performance Rights Act – Strange Fruit in Tough Economic Times

By Maco L. Faniel

On most mornings, you like many Americans, drive to work listening to one or more radio shows where you hear the latest news, traffic and weather reports, and listen to your favorite music. These radio shows provide comic relief as we endure the drive to our dreaded 9 to 5’s. And not only comic relief, they give us a beat to begin our day with because they know the pulse of the community.

Commercial radio stations like Houston’s KBXX (97.9 The Box) and KMJQ (Majic 102.1) or Dallas’ KKDA (K104) and KBFB (97.9 The Beat) provide the community with valuable information, especially during our vulnerable moments.

Imagine, what would have happened in Houston if radio did not provide moment by moment news about food and ice locations during Hurricane Ike? Imagine, what would have happened if radio did not keep us informed about the 2008 presidential campaign and voting locations? And imagine where you would be able to hear about the latest community events, charities, and concerts without radio? If you can’t imagine this, then you should be pretty concerned about the threat posed to access this free information and entertainment known as the Performance Rights Act.

Congressman John Conyers (D-Michigan) and other Congress members like Sheila Jackson-Lee(D-Texas) have teamed up with the  musicFIRST coalition to pass House Resolution 848, the Performance Rights Act. This resolution and its sister bill in the Senate (S.B. 379) could change the sound of radio as we know it.

In the height of tough economic times and declining sales for the recording industry, the Performance Rights Act was introduced by Conyers. The Performance Rights Act was designed to ensure music artists are paid for the playing of their music; therefore, passage of the bill would charge local radio stations a fee to air music that the public has received for free for years.

Currently, federal copyright law only requires royalties to be paid to writers and publishers of music, not the performers. The Performance Rights Act would amend federal copyright law by extending payment to performing artists. With the passage of Performance Rights Act, artists would not have to rely solely on CD sales and concerts to make money.

This sounds like a great idea. But…

Record companies are asking Congress to force radio stations to pay them (record companies) to help promote its artists’ music. They are losing money due to digital downloading, because people just don’t have the funds for the extras, and because the quality of popular music has declined.  In an effort to recoup their funds, they are working with Conyers, Jackson-Lee, and other members of Congress to make radio pay.

Unlike satellite radio, most radio stations provide free news and music to its listening audience. Commercial radio is funded solely by advertisements, and in tough economic times companies are not buying as many ads as they used to. So, where is the money going to come from to pay artists?

Radio company execs fear that they will have to lay off staff or increase advertising fees. Or they fear that radio may get out of the business of playing music and only provide talk radio.

        In a press release sent out on May 13, 2009, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee says that, “We must be crusaders for justice….I co-sponsored H.R. 848, the ‘Performance Rights Act’ because I believe in fairness, equity, and justice.  I have great love and affection for my friends who own broadcasting companies because they are involved in this great radio industry.

        “However, the law that permits our gospel artists, R & B, hip-hop, jazz and other good musicians from getting just compensation has not been changed since 1909.  Only Iran, China and North Korea join the United States of America in preventing artists from being compensated. 

        “Therefore my vote today was to equalize the rights of performers like the Four Tops, the Temptations, Kirk Franklin, Yolanda Adams, Martha Reeves, Harry Belafonte, Herbie Hancock, Archie Bell and the Drells, Kanye West, Beyonce and those lesser known and new artists such as your aspiring son or daughter trying to get in the music business. People in the music industry have inspired us and comforted us. As members of Congress, we need to act to help them.  It is only fair and equitable that artists who have their music played on the radio be compensated. “


The Sound Exchange and certain Congress persons are saying  that the Performance Rights Act is going to put money  into the pockets of our beloved artists, but according to the website, “the record labels would get at least 50% of the proceeds from a tax on local radio.” And what will the community get in return? 


The community stands to suffer by the passage of the Performance Rights Act, because radio will have to reduce public service info and events like – Hip Hop for HIV, Houston Hip Hop for Haiti, and Take a Loved One to the Doctor Day. The community also stands to suffer because radio will only play those songs that they know will make them money so that they can pay the record companies.  This is especially the case for African American and Latino markets, which depend so much on radio for community news.

Jarvis Johnson, Houston City Councilmember and challenger of Sheila Jackson Lee’s congressional seat, says that, “Obviously, putting a tax on any corporation in a recession is harmful. To try to generate revenue from radio stations that provide entertainment and community resources is absurd. When we look at who the radio stations have to pay, those same entities are responsible for putting artists in dire straits. That’s like asking the fox to watch the hens. There is no clear justification.

“Minority and small radio stations play an intricate part in the lives of millions of people throughout the City of Houston and nationwide. In today’s times of economic uncertainty, these stations serve as not only an information center for millions; they also employ hundreds of people who help generate a base for entertainers everywhere. They serve as a galvanizing center for minority communities nationwide and their effect is felt throughout the world. It is my desire that elected officials protect the voice of these radio stations, by not just reviewing the words of the bill, but the effect that the bill’s application would have on the community. The obligation of every elected official is the represent the people.”

Artists should get paid for their work, but who should pay them; their employers or radio?

Commercial radio is a tool which record companies use to promote their artists, but if radio has to pay, there may not be a “free” service to promote music anymore.

All of this tastes like strange fruit because congressional representatives from our communities are working with big business to adulterate a community resource by adding fees to a public service. And they are using our beloved artists to sell us this rotten fruit.

In tough economic times big business still has to make its money, so why not charge for services that are normally free. The Performance Rights Act is being funded by record companies so that they can make money since their sales are continuing to plummet.

Follow the money and see where the trail ends – lobbyists, record companies, congressmen, or the artists.

Faniel is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.

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