It’s time to respect artists

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Who among us doesn’t know the feeling that comes over you when you hear that special song on the radio? The one that brings back memories — things like a first car, first love, or first live concert. The one that gets you through a long drive, warms a holiday with family or sets the mood for a night out with friends. Music has that unique power to move us and inspire us, to console us and unite us.

It’s priceless. And yet, as someone who has written and performed songs myself, I know from the hundreds of hard-working artists with whom I’ve been honored to visit (or even share a stage) how musicians all too often are forced to live from gig-to-gig, struggling just to make ends meet.

I entered public service to fight for people who need a fair shake. You know who they are: the folks we rely upon most in our communities — good neighbors and great teachers, first responders and faith leaders. The kind whose contributions are invaluable but who always seem to be undervalued by the powers that be.

What you may not know, however, is that the performers who give us our favorite tunes have never — never — been paid a dime by the multi-billion dollar FM/AM radio corporations that profit from artists’ music. Digital platforms and streaming services pay artists when they stream their songs, but not massive corporations such as iHeartRadio that own thousands of traditional radio stations and make billions in advertising dollars off the commercials that are played in between songs.

It’s the worst form of corporate welfare: massive corporations protected by outdated law that enables them to profit at the expense of hard-working individuals.

And this broken and unfair system has never hurt musicians more than in recent months, when the pandemic shuttered live music venues and dried up many of their opportunities to make a living. That is why I was excited when musicFIRST — a coalition of groups fighting for music creators — approached me about serving as the organization’s chairman. It’s the kind of fight that I relish – helping to rectify an injustice that’s been allowed to go on for far too long. An injustice perpetrated against America’s fundamental values. And one that threatens the livelihoods of thousands of middle-class artists who are struggling to make ends meet.

So, how can we rectify that injustice? We can start by changing the rules that are rigged in favor of billion-dollar broadcasting corporations to ensure that hard-working creators get paid when their work is played on the radio.

Think about this: if you ever dropped a dollar in a guitar case for a singer playing tunes on a street corner, you’ve paid that artist more than corporate broadcasters like iHeart or Cumulus have ever paid any performer whose work they’ve used to fill their airwaves. Now, these corporations and the National Association of Broadcasters will claim they are doing those artists a favor just by exploiting their music — providing them free “exposure.” That is what in 2021 is called “exposure bucks” — and they don’t pay the rent.

But other companies, like online platforms and streaming services, pay for their use of music — and, increasingly, that’s where music fans are discovering new music and artists, not on FM/AM radio, according to a recent survey. In other words, there is simply no justification for billion-dollar companies like iHeart to exploit artists for their own profits.

Now is the time for Congress to fix this outrage and give artists their due. Now is the time for Congress to pass legislation that changes the rules and ensures fairness for working artists by paying them when their music is played on FM/AM radio. What is more just than getting paid for your work? It seems so fundamental — to everyone but multi-billion dollar corporate broadcasters.

The American people get this. By a 2-1 ratio, they say artists should get paid fairly for their work, according to that same recent survey. That is because Americans are fundamentally fair, and value the hard-working musicians who add joy to their lives.

Our message is simple: when Congress lets huge corporations exploit artists’ work for free, we send the message that they don’t have value. That is a horrible message to send to so many young people around the country who dream of building a career in music. That cannot be our message. That is why the cause of respect and equity for creators must endure, and those of us who believe in fairness must stand together so artists can earn a living making the music we all love.

Joe Crowley is Chairman of the musicFIRST Coalition. He previously represented New York’s 14th District for 20 years and served as chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

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