Musicians continue fight for performance rights

Volume CX, No. 6June, 2010

Paul Molloy

We’ve made great strides in recent weeks on the Performance Rights Act (H.R. 848/S. 379) which, when passed, will require broadcasters to make royalty payments to recording artists whose work is played on AM/FM radio.

In the last week of April, civil rights champion Peter Yarrow, who is also a member of Local 802, secured the support of four more members of Congress for the bill: Lynn Woolsey (D, CA-6), John Garamendi (D, CA-10), Janice Schakowsky (D, IL-9) and Dennis Kucinich (D, OH-10).

As Allegro readers well know by now, AM/FM radio stations have been using the music of recording artists to build their listener base and advertising revenue, without sharing any of that revenue to compensate the creators.

Due to an unfair and unfortunate anomaly in U.S. copyright law, the broadcasting industry makes $20 billion a year in advertising sales at the expense of music creators.

AFM and AFTRA members are negatively impacted by the lack of a performance right on AM/FM radio.

This is unlike all other forms of radio in the U.S., unlike all other copyrighted works, and unlike the performance rights in 29 other developed nations.

When it comes to performance rights, the U.S. currently stands with China, Iran, Rwanda and North Korea.

Broad support

The Performance Rights Act enjoys broad support. It has 50 co-sponsors in the House and eight in the Senate.

Major supporters include the Obama Administration, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the American Bar Association, the AFL-CIO (both the national federation and the New York affiliate), and the NAACP.

In fact, the NAACP declared the bill a civil rights issue and the AFL-CIO has declared it a labor bill.

So far, 11 members of the New York congressional delegation have signed on.

Seven congress members from New York City support it, three oppose it and four have yet to make a decision.

Earlier this spring, I attended a press conference on Capitol Hill in support of the act.

Those present included:

  • AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka
  • AFM President Tom Lee
  • AFTRA President Roberta Reardon
  • Peter Yarrow
  • Rep. George Miller, chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor
  • Rep. John Conyers, chair of the House Judiciary Committee
  • Rep Bob Brady, chair of the House Administration Committee
  • Reps. Jerry Nadler, Jan Schakowsky, Lynn Woolsey and John Garamendi.

Rep. Dennis Kucinch was unable to stay for the event, but stopped by beforehand to offer his endorsement of and a pledge to cosponsor the bill.

“The concentration of ownership, with a monopolistic control over radio and performing spaces, makes it so the business is designed to reach the broadest possible audience. What has happened is it has wrecked the music world,” said Yarrow.

He added,”It doesn’t make any sense to say that when a song is played on the radio, there will be remuneration for the songwriter and not for the performer who performs.”

Opposition – and election year politics

While support for the Performance Rights Act is considerable, so is the opposition.

The National Association of Broadcasters has a resolution in the House (H. Con. Res. 49), which is hostile to the Performance Rights Act.

It currently has 261 supporters (more than the 218 needed for a simple majority).

The resolution does not have the force of law. It is simply a position statement. However, if the bill were to come to the floor for a vote, it wouldn’t pass.

It will most likely be attached to some larger and critical piece of legislation that requires passage.

Supporting this bill would seem like a no-brainer, but some elected officials are shying away from it.

Given the strong anti-incumbency mood in the country, some politicians fear that supporting the bill will provide ammo for their opponents.

AFM Legislative Director Hal Ponder and I recently met with the senior advisor/general counsel to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand in Washington, D.C.

Since her appointment to the Senate last year, there’s been a concerted effort by the members of the MusicFIRST Coalition (which includes the AFM and Local 802) to gain her support.

Despite the great work of many advocates on this issue, I received word in early May that Senator Gillibrand will not be co-sponsoring the Performance Rights Act.

Equally disappointing was the news from a few days earlier that my own congressman, Tim Bishop (D, NY-1), would not be cosponsoring the bill in the 111th Congress.

Action needed

We remain undeterred. We don’t give up. In fact, we increase our voices and our visibility. If we are to succeed, we must continue keep the pressure on politicians who seek labor’s support but play election year politics with the livelihoods of American recording artists and owners.

To find out if your member of Congress supports the Performance Rights Act, go to Local 802’s Legislative Action Center at

Click on the Performance Rights Act link at the bottom of the page. If your representative is on the bill, call him or her and say thanks.

If not, pick up the phone, send an e-mail, make an appointment, and tell your member of Congress to get on the right side of fairness, civil rights, labor and American recording artists.

Rich Trumka summed it up best:

“The labor movement was founded on the principle that a hard day’s work deserves a fair day’s pay. That’s the principle at stake in the fight for the Performance Rights Act.”

Trumka added, “If you care about music, if you care about the right of Americans to get paid for their work, if you care about doing what is right, be a part of the good fight for our performing brothers and sisters.”