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WASHINGTON — The fight over whether radio broadcasters should pay a royalty to musicians and record companies took the Senate Judiciary Committee’s center stage Tuesday as Grammy-winning musician Lyle Lovett and Chicago-based singer Alice Peacock argued passionately for the payments.
While Lovett is among the fortunate musicians who have made their mark and a more than comfortable living off his music, he told the senators that the issue was more than just dollars and cents.
“Business is business, and fair is fair — radio shouldn’t get to profit off the music we create without compensating us,” Lovett told the lawmakers.
The royalty for playing a song on the radio wouldn’t go only to him but also would pay the talented sidemen that play in the bands that back him up.
While Lovett represented the musician with a wall full of gold records, Peacock represented the other side of the coin, the vast majority of the nation’s musicians who make a decent but not spectacular living off their craft.
“On behalf of the great middle class of recording artists, I urge you to correct this historic inequity and grant a performance right for sound recordings. It’s only fair,” she said.
To prove her point, she played a verse of her song “Bliss” during the hearing.
“That’s the first time I’ve seen the red light go on when I didn’t want the speaker to stop,” said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., referring to the red and green lights that tell witnesses testifying before the committee when their time is up.
Terrestrial broadcasters don’t pay a performance royalty, though they pay songwriters’ royalties. Music delivered over the Internet and by satellite and cable pay a performance royalty. A performance royalty is also paid to musicians in most other countries.
That didn’t stop the broadcast industry from pushing the senators to keep the current regime in place. Broadcasters argue — as they did when the law was last revamped in the 1970s — that the promotional value of radio substitutes for a cash payment.
“The existing model works for one very simple and significant reason: The promotional value that the record labels and performers receive from free airplay on local radio stations drives consumers to purchase music,” Commonwealth Broadcasting president and CEO Steve Newberry said. “With an audience of 232 million listeners a week, there is no better way to expose and promote talent.”
Despite broadcasters’ objections, the senators seemed to be inclined to take some action.
“As I study this issue, I think the system is illogical, the way it’s devised,” Specter said. “Whether it’s fair is a more complex issue.”
The lawmakers’ desire might not be enough to move any legislation. While the Senate and House Judiciary Committees — the panels that oversee copyright law — have been more receptive to the entertainment industry, other committees have not.
Broadcasters might not be as powerful as they once were, but they are still a force to be reckoned with, and even music industry insiders admit that it likely will take the rest of this Congress and the next to win a change.
“Nobody is under the illusion that a change like this can be done this year,” one music industry exec said. “We all know this is going to be a long, tough battle.”
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