Congress Should Stop Terrestrial Radio’s Free Ride at the Expense of Music Artists

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Sometimes it seems like the only legislation that gets prioritized in Washington are bills that rip off taxpayers. But in a welcomed change of pace, Congress has an opportunity to stop American artists from being ripped off via the American Music Fairness Act, which has been introduced in the House and will soon be unveiled in the Senate.

It should go without saying that artists should be paid for their work. A painter shouldn’t have his or her painting taken without compensation and, similarly, music performers should not have their works used without compensation. While this may seem like common sense, this is not how we treat music currently.

Under current law, while streaming services, online platforms and even satellite radio stations are all required to pay music artists when they use their work, AM/FM “terrestrial” radio stations enjoy a zero-cost compulsory license that allows them to play any music they want while paying artists (unless they also wrote the songs – songwriters are paid) exactly zero.

AM/FM stations quite literally profit off the backs of performers – whose content they depend on for advertising sales – but due to a legal carveout, they aren’t required to pay artists in the process. This would be akin to the government telling film studios it’s illegal to charge fees to movie theaters that want to air their movie, while simultaneously allowing the theater to pocket all the money from movie ticket sales. Whether you stream a song on Spotify, listen to it on the radio, or buy an album from the store, a composer or performer should be appropriately compensated when their creative work is aired.

The American Music Fairness Act also strikes an appropriate regulatory balance by exempting small broadcasters as well as college and non-commercial stations — ensuring that no truly local station pays more than $2 per day for all the music they need to play. This isn’t a money grab on small town radio stations, but an effort to ensure that large, profitable radio networks will finally compensate the artists who pay their bills and compete on a level playing field with streaming services.

The bill will also allow American artists to collect royalties when radio stations in other countries play their music. Under the Rome Convention, artists have performance rights in their recordings and can enforce royalty payments; but the free pass Congress has given AM/FM broadcasters leaves the US on the outside looking in, and because international artists cannot collect royalties from US stations, American artists are forced to forfeit their international radio royalties.

Republicans believe in property rights and Democrats believe in their friends in the music industry. Maybe that will finally be enough to overcome the political power of the broadcasters and end the AM/FM free rider problem.

Jon Decker is executive director of American Commitment​