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Making sure artists are paid for work is the American way

Music is the messenger of the soul. It creates the soundtrack of our lives, reminding us of those signal moments — a first kiss, a wedding dance, a memory of a loved one — that make life so rich and complete. And it is the performers who create music who speak to us most deeply, healing our hurt at vulnerable times and inspiring us to greater heights when we face formidable obstacles. As we pay tribute to the contributions of our nation’s workers this Labor Day, including its musicians, it’s time to also ensure they receive the basic, fair compensation they are due.

Paying our workers for their labor is a bedrock American principle. Few would argue that the performers whose art so influences our daily lives shouldn’t be compensated for their hard work to create that art — but that is exactly what happens every day on AM/FM radio. An antiquated loophole allows radio stations to play music while only compensating the songwriter, but not the artists who perform the songs. This injustice has prevented artists from taking home the compensation they deserve for decades.

Even stranger, terrestrial radio are the only ones who get away with not paying for their product. Increasingly popular streaming services like Spotify and Pandora and digital platforms like YouTube and TikTok all compensate artists when their music is played. Meanwhile, AM/FM radio stations collect more than $10 billion a year from selling advertisements — but refuse to share a single dime of those profits with the artists whose work is the reason that listeners tune in to radio to begin with.

The American Music Fairness Act — which is currently progressing through the House of Representatives, with a companion bill poised for introduction in the Senate — would finally right this wrong. The AMFA would create a fair market for music performance royalties by closing the loophole and requiring big corporate broadcasters to pay artists when their songs are played on AM/FM stations.

Furthermore, this legislation compensates artists while also protecting small, local broadcasters. It allows local stations generating less than $1.5 million in annual revenue, with parent companies generating less than $10 million in annual receipts, to play unlimited music for only $500 per year — less than $2 per day. Qualified public, college, and other noncommercial stations would pay only $100 a year, and the smallest stations — those with less than $100,000 in annual revenues — would pay just $10 a year.

So who would be required to pay full freight? Those who can definitely afford to pay: the more than 2,000 radio stations that are owned by the six largest corporate broadcasters, such as iHeartRadio and Cumulus. These companies are collectively reaping billions in profit on the backs of working-class musicians and performers — and that’s just wrong.

The American people agree. A recent national survey showed that most Americans are not currently aware that artists aren’t paid when their songs are played on traditional radio. But when they are made aware of this fact, they overwhelmingly say that it is unfair — by a 3-to-1 margin. The public needs to understand how traditional, giant radio stations continue to profit off music creators without paying for it. We can’t let them continue to get away with this injustice.

As the Grammy-award winning singer and songwriter Gloria Estefan wisely pointed out during a hearing before the House Judiciary Committee earlier this year: “This corporate radio loophole makes broadcast radio the only industry in America that can use another’s intellectual property without permission or compensation. Every industrialized country except the United States provides a performance right. Moreover, when American-made music is played overseas, other countries collect royalties for American artists and producers but never pay those royalties because we don’t reciprocate. This inequity costs the American economy and artists more than $200 million each year.”

SAG-AFTRA and our partners in the musicFIRST Coalition are not alone in this fight. Further support for music fairness has poured in from other union groups, collectively representing tens of thousands of musicians across the country, including the AFL-CIO and the American Federation of Musicians. We’re also joined by the U.S. Copyright Office, the consumer advocacy organization Public Knowledge, the Alliance for Community Media and the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, to name a few. And it’s no surprise why these organizations are speaking out. As the economist Barry M. Massarsky testified, “There is no reasonable economic basis for broadcast radio to continue to enjoy its exemption from the sound recording terrestrial performance right.”

In our polarized times, it’s rare to find an issue that has support on both sides of the aisle — but the American Music Fairness Act has found strong support in both parties. A bipartisan group of legislators supports the bill, including its original sponsors, Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) and Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), as well as dozens of their colleagues. And soon, we’re expecting senators from both parties to step forward to put their support behind the people who create the music that makes us love, laugh, cry and reflect upon the most important moments of our lives. 

Paying our workers fairly for their hard work is the American way. It always has been, and we at SAG-AFTRA believe strongly that it always should be. The power of labor is designed to ensure that huge corporations do not freely reap huge benefits on the backs of others. That’s why Congress should pass the American Music Fairness Act now. Our musicians deserve better.

Fran Drescher is the president of SAG-AFTRA, a New York Times best-selling author and an award-winning actor.


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