Daily Herald
Radio industry snuffing performance royalty
By Ted Cox | Daily Herald Columnist
Published: 6/9/2009 12:01 AM

The radio industry, normally so chatty even on the most music-driven stations, shows no interest in talking about a performance royalty for singers and musicians.

Station owners are clearly trying to stonewall the Performance Rights Act now being debated in Congress, and it looks as if they might succeed.

Although the bill cleared the U.S. House Judiciary Committee by a 21-9 vote last month, the powerful National Association of Broadcasters lobby came back last week with claims it has signed on 220 representatives to block the bill, enough to defeat it in the House.

Washington, D.C., has been just about the only place the radio industry has actively engaged in the debate. Local market heads Rod Zimmerman of CBS Radio, Earl Jones of Clear Channel Media and even Floyd Evans of tiny NextMedia, owner of adult-contemporary WZSR 105.5-FM and WWYW 103.9-FM in Crystal Lake and classic-rock WERV 95.9-FM in Aurora, did not respond to numerous interview requests over a matter of months.

The Performing Rights Act would require radio stations to pay a royalty fee to performers to go with the songwriters' royalty that has long been in place.

"The issue is one of fundamental fairness," said Elk Grove Village native and Glenbard North alumnus Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins while testifying before Congress earlier this year.

"I do think that artists and writers should get paid," said Todd Elbrink, general manager of Naperville-based the River 95.9-FM, but that was before referring the matter to his NextMedia boss Evans, who has not returned phone calls or e-mails.

Songwriters got a radio royalty imposed early on, but periodic attempts to institute a performers' royalty failed, even when Frank Sinatra pushed for it in the '70s. Of course, back then, both the radio and music industries were flying high, so there was little urgency. Now, both are struggling, and the Performance Rights Act calls for half of the royalty payment to go to music labels, the other half to the performing artists.

Most nations have a performance royalty on radio. Today, only China, North Korea and Iran do not - fine company for the United States to keep - and because of that U.S. artists do not receive royalties from play on overseas stations.

The U.S. radio industry has cried poverty and threatened that the new royalty would force many music stations to go to all-talk formats.

How much would stations pay? The rate would have to be established through negotiations between the radio and music industries once the bill becomes law, but last year NAB President David Rehr was quoted as saying he'd rather slit his own throat than negotiate with music labels. (Rehr is now preparing to step down.) Yet all along the bill has called for small stations with less that $1.25 million in annual revenues to pay $5,000, or about $400 a month. That's an estimated 75 percent of all stations. An amendment tacked onto the bill in the Judiciary Committee by sponsor Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) lowered even that.

"The amount of money you're talking about is not going to break any radio station," said Neil Tesser, a Chicago jazz writer and former WBEZ 91.5-FM disc jockey.

Radio stations have argued that performers already are benefited by promoting their albums when their music gets played on the radio. Yet artists like Mary Wilson, formerly of the Supremes, have lobbied back that they long ago sold their records; the advantage a station gets in playing them now far outweighs any promotion in today's file-sharing music world.

The bill has not been brought to a vote before the full U.S. House, and it's only just getting moving in the Senate, but it likely won't go anywhere without some impetus from voters.