Artists Rally for Performers’ Radio Royalties

Marc RIbot, Jason Moran and others speak out in NYC

Jason Moran
Marc Ribot at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC, Feb. 2014

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When David Byrne delightfully stumbled through the lyrics of rapper Biz Markie’s 1989 platinum single “Just a Friend” on Feb. 25 at the Artists’ Pay for Radio Play Rally at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, he was illustrating the point that Markie never got what he needed in more ways than one. Despite the fact that Markie is the only artist who can deliver the kitschy ’80s anthem in his brilliantly incompetent style, without a songwriting credit, Markie likely never received any royalties for its copious radio airplay, Byrne said.

The Talking Heads frontman joined Marc Ribot, Jason Moran, Melvin Gibbs, Jazz Foundation of America Director Wendy Oxenhorn and numerous artists and advocates in a concert of radio-hit covers to protest a broadcast culture that compensates recording artists with no more than promotional exposure. Ceramic Dog-Ribot, bassist Shahzad Ismaily and drummer Ches Smith-served as the house band.

Beyond radio, multiplatform distribution models have provided unprecedented exposure for groups such as Ribot’s, but with ever-widening access to free content, visibility is not enough, he explained at LPR. “We are no longer going to allow ourselves to be used in the manufacturing of consent and the destruction of our livelihoods, of our industry and of our art forms,” said Ribot, who in addition to releasing almost 20 albums as a leader, has appeared as a sideman for Norah Jones, the Black Keys, Elton John and countless other radio-friendly artists. “We’re not going to consent to it anymore. We’re not going to be told to shut up and play.”

Ironically, Aretha Franklin received no radio royalties for “Respect,” written by Otis Redding, and, more insidiously to the jazz community, neither did saxophonist King Curtis, guitarist Cornell Dupree or the other veteran sidemen who helped make it famous. “A lot of jazz is based on playing standards and interpreting the works of composers, interpreting pop works, and that’s a great history. But it’s also a sad history, because it means that none of the jazz artists who interpreted those works got paid anything for radio,” said Ribot.

This has nothing to do with payola; in addition to Iran, North Korea and Rwanda, the United States is among the minority of nations in which the practice of excluding performers from commercial airplay royalties remains legal.

With “Respect,” Franklin got more than a little of what she was asking for, but members of advocacy group the Content Creators Coalition claim that allocating pennies per play to performer royalties out of the $14 billion annual ad-sales revenue for broadcast radio would have a significant impact on the lives of average musicians. “The artists that recorded that music didn’t see a dime, and this has been going on forever in the United States,” said Chris Ruen, author of Freeloading: How Our Insatiable Hunger for Free Content Starves Creativity and an organizer of the event.

Among the songs featured during the concert, all of them subject to the same legal catch-22 as “Respect,” were “Wild Thing,” in a boho-chic rendering by Jennifer Charles of Elysian Fields; “Body and Soul,” given a solo reading by Jason Moran; “I’m Your Puppet,” in a folk-Americana duet by Mike Mills of R.E.M. and Marilyn Carino; and “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” performed by John McCrea of Cake.

Rosanne Cash, a member of the coalition advisory board, related the story of how Willie Nelson sold the rights to “Night Life” for $150, thereby barring himself from radio royalties in perpetuity. “We are now back in virtually the same position that Willie Nelson was in [during] the 1950s,” Cash said in a video. Cash said she was paid only $104 for 574,000 streams of her music on Spotify over an 18-month period. “Young musicians are being forced out of the industry daily because they can’t survive,” she said.

Kevin Erickson, of the Washington, D.C.-based Future of Music Coalition, has lobbied Congress to take legislative action. “If we fix artist compensation on the radio side, it’s a big step toward more sustainable compensation on other platforms, including online,” Erickson said, claiming that the royalties exemption artificially deflates the market. “If the creative community is able to come together and speak as one unified voice, we can bury this pernicious notion that musicians are obligated to work for free and then be grateful for the exposure.”

Members of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians also weighed in. “We make all the music, but everybody else makes all the money,” said Ray Hair, international president of the federation. “To state the obvious, the music world doesn’t have much going on without musicians, and the way we’re going to change the industry is to stand together as musicians and demand it.”

Bassist Melvin Gibbs remarked how the onus of support for the destitute in the jazz community has fallen to organizations like the Jazz Foundation of America. “It’s not that we didn’t take care of our money, it’s that we didn’t get paid in the first place,” said Gibbs, who has been a sideman with Caetano Veloso and Rollins Band. “We’re generating wealth; we’re not begging. So when we generate wealth, we should get to participate in it.”