Conyers: Broadcasters' fight against royalties similar to 'involuntary servitude'

Broadcasters' refusal to pay royalty fees to musicians when airing their songs is a form of involuntary servitude, House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) said Tuesday.

During a press conference with singer Dionne Warwick on Capitol Hill, Conyers promoted the Performance Rights Act, which would require AM and FM radio broadcasters to pay royalties to singers and bands for playing their songs on the air.

The legislation would change an 80-year-old law that requires broadcasters to pay royalties only to songwriters. Radio broadcasters have never been required to pay the performers because airing their music has been considered a form of free promotion that leads to other money-making gigs, such as national tours.

The music industry, represented by the MusicFirst Coalition, put on the event to push the issue. Warwick said it is critical for singers who create legendary music to continue to get paid for their work long after they have stopped touring and making new albums.

"This is a critical issue for not only those of us who have made music our careers, but for those who are trying to make a name for themselves in the business," she said.

Conyers said it isn't fair for cable stations, satellite radio stations, online radio services and movie studios to have to pay royalties to singers when AM and FM radio stations don't have to pay a dime.

"In 1865, slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment. No more free labor," Conyers said. "It abolished at the same time involuntary servitude. What does that have to do with what we're here for today? Well, when you tell somebody that you're benefiting from their work product but there's no avenue for compensation, it kind of harkens back to that great problem."

Conyers said broadcasters argue that they have never had to pay royalties to artists so they don't think they should have to start now.

"Well I do think so," Conyers said.

He said he hopes to get the bill passed this year, but first wants to negotiate with broadcasters to reach an agreement. Conyers has instructed the music industry and broadcasting industry to hold private discussion to find a compromise. So far, those negotiations have been unsuccessful.

The press conference was held while broadcasters from around the country met at the nearby Hyatt Regency hotel to prepare for their annual descent on Capitol Hill tomorrow.

The National Association of Broadcasters says the "performance tax" is a top priority for the industry this year. Imposing the royalty requirement could cause financial hardship for many radio stations, especially the small ones that are already struggling to get by during the recession.

"The unfortunate truth is that this legislation benefits foreign-owned record labels to the detriment of 'struggling artists.'" said NAB executive vice president Dennis Wharton in response to the press conference. "With diminished revenues, radio stations will take less risk in exposing 'struggling artists.' This is a job-killing bill that threatens a musician's number one promotional vehicle while transferring hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of companies based in Tokyo, Paris and London."

MusicFirst says most stations would pay no more than $5,000 a year. Some of the small stations would pay only $100 a year.

"If $100 will put you out of business, we can loan you the money," Conyers said.