Musicians ask radio bigwigs for change

Will.i.am and a gaggle of other big-name musicians transitioned from “Yes we can” to “Oh, no you can’t” Tuesday, leaning on several members of Congress to push for an end to free airplay for songs on the radio.

The Black Eyed Peas front man famous for creating the “Yes We Can” song for President Obama’s election campaign appeared alongside a “We Are the World”-like roster of fellow artists to protest a current law that forces satellite, cable and Internet radio outlets to compensate musicians for playing their songs but allows AM and FM stations to air any song they want cost-free.

Will.i.am stood with Sheryl Crow, Herbie Hancock, Emmylou Harris, Patti LaBelle, Matt Maher, Los Tigres del Norte and Dionne Warwick to push the cause.

Though his message this time around wasn’t nearly as unifying as that of his Obama campaign song, he did riff on one of the president’s other campaign themes.

“Everything’s changing,” said Will.i.am, dressed in a brown suit, black bowtie, black hat and round black glasses. “It’s 2009, not 1959.”

Lawmakers who have signed onto the accompanying legislation, the Performance Rights Act, are a predictable bunch: Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) consider themselves artists in their own right. Leahy had a spot role in last year’s blockbuster Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” and Hatch is something of a songwriting star in the religious-music world.

The California delegation, many of whose constituents include professional artists, also heartily support the legislation, with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D) and Barbara Boxer (D) and Reps. Howard Berman (D), Darrell Issa (R) and Jane Harman (D) signing their names onto the cause.

Representatives from the unofficial country-music headquarters in Tennessee, Sen. Bob Corker (R) and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R), and in Motown, Michigan Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D), showed their support, too.

And then there are the two apparent groupies: Reps. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) and Paul Hodes (D-N.H.).

Leahy told press conference attendees that he was asked to speak on the issue if he would “pledge not to sing.”

“We wanted to tell people it’s not a Republican or Democratic issue,” the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman said. “It’s not a conservative or liberal issue. It’s an issue of fairness.”

Meanwhile, artists continued to plead their case. Crow, dressed in knee-high black boots and a black-and-white plaid dress, took the sympathy route, singing a tough-economic-times chorus.

As she and her band grow older, she said, “I’d like to think we’d not continue to tour because we have to, but we continue to tour because we want to.”

She also revealed her listening preferences. “I grew up in a household that played Burt Bacharach constantly,” she said before introducing Warwick to speak. “[Warwick] absolutely is the soundtrack to my earliest years,” Crow said, “and I still love her, and I would like to see her get paid when her performances hit the radio.”

LaBelle, on the other hand, was more blunt. “Thank you to everyone who is interested in us not being pimped anymore,” said LaBelle, wearing an ivory cape and black pants. “Because that’s what we’ve been. We’ve been pimped.”

The organization behind the push is the musicFIRST Coalition. “It’s unfair, unjustified and un-American that artists and musicians are paid absolutely nothing when their recordings are played on AM and FM radio,” coalition Executive Director Jennifer Bendall said in a statement. “Music is their work, their livelihood. They deserve to be compensated when their music is played on the air.”

Before heading back to the Senate, Hatch gave the musicians — a cohort that included seven Grammy winners — a few words of encouragement: “Hang in there, OK?”