on rent seekers

Radio Free America

Los Angeles

WHEN I hear great American standards on the radio, I think of all the songwriters, artists and musicians whom my father, brother and I have worked with over the years. It reminds me that every recording has two parts, the composition and the performance. It also reminds me how many wonderful artists and musicians have not been paid fairly for their work.

Songwriters and publishers are paid when their tunes are played on the radio, but none of the artists or musicians who bring the music to life receive even a penny. The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding a hearing today on legislation that will right this wrong, which dates back to the early days of sound recordings.

My father, Frank Sinatra, and singers like Tony Bennett, Bing Crosby and Perry Como fought for years for performance royalties from radio stations, arguing it was unfair that performers are not paid and citing cases like Helen Forrest that show the harsh side of this injustice.

Helen was one of the most gifted singers of the 1940s. Known as the “Voice of the Name Bands,” she had hits like “I Cried for You” and “I Had the Craziest Dream.” Sadly, Helen spent her last years practically destitute because she received nothing when her songs were played on the radio.

This fight isn’t just about featured artists. There are thousands of background singers and session musicians who deserve to be paid for their work, too.

Radio station owners argue that artists receive free promotion from airplay of their records. This is simply untrue. Most of the music played on AM and FM radio is at least two years old. And the practice of “backselling” — mentioning the name and performer of the song that was just played — has fallen into such disuse that a decade ago the nation’s largest radio station operator, Clear Channel, asked for $24,000 per title to mention the song’s artists on the air. It’s no surprise that companies unwilling to even recognize artists on the air would also be averse to paying performance royalties.

Terrestrial radio is the only radio platform that still doesn’t have to pay these royalties. Internet radio and satellite radio pay artists when they play their records, so do cable television music channels. In fact, AM and FM radio stations that stream their signal online pay performance royalties.

The United States is one of a small number of countries where artists and musicians are not compensated when their music is played on over-the-air radio. Because the United States doesn’t have performance royalties, radio stations in countries that do collect them do not have to pay American artists. In many of these countries, American artists make up as much as 50 percent of radio airplay, and this prevents millions of dollars — industry estimates are $100 million a year — from flowing into our economy.

I believe in a performance royalty because recording artists and musicians from every generation deserve to be compensated for their art.

My father became an icon by putting his inimitable stamp on songs from “My Funny Valentine” to “My Way” and “Come Fly With Me.” When he sings, “Weatherwise it’s such a lovely day” in “Come Fly With Me,” he lingers on the word “lovely,” and you can actually imagine yourself floating in a blue sky on a lovely day.

He brought music to life with his own style just as every artist does when he takes notes and words on a page and sings or plays them in his own way. Singers and musicians, as much as songwriters, create something when they perform — and we should make sure all artists are paid when their creations are heard on the radio.

Nancy Sinatra is a singer.

Reader comments:

Cleveland, OH
Here's an idea, Nancy. Make radio stations pay you "performance royalties" and then do all your concerts and give away all your records for free!

Airplay IS---and always has been-- promotion for the more lucrative endeavors of record sales and live performances. Your father, as I recall, did not die a poor man. And that was to a large extent because his music was heard on the radio.

As a "one-hit wonder" Nancy, I realize you'd like to squeeze a little more coin out of "Boots." But most artists would rather get airplay to sell CDs and concert tickets than a dime every time one of their songs are played.

Stratford, NH
"[...] how many wonderful artists and musicians have not been paid fairly for their work."

What, exactly constitutes "fair" payment? I helped build a unique house once. I even had a part in its design. Without my contribution, it would not have been the unique structure that it is today. Is it, then, "fair" that I am not paid every time a new resident - or even guest - enters the house? What if a magazine should publish a picture of the house? Should I receive a royalty?

I do know we feel we underpay artistry in our culture, but I am entirely unconvinced that the intellectual property model currently used - and advocated by some as "fair" - is appropriate. I do appreciate how attractive it might be to continue to receive payments for work years or decades after the work was completed, but that model is suggestive of a worker who has become parasitic on society. Rather than demand the continuation and extension of the current and rather extortionist model, we should be advocating innovative systems of payment that support artists according to the value of their time.

walt A.
North Calais, Vt
It would be interesting not to mention ironic if Ms. Sinatra's concern for her father and the other artists listed began making a difference in the way music money is distributed. As I recall many of the huge hit songs of the 50s and 60s were whitened versions of rhythm and blues standards considered too "black" to garner much attention. Little Richard scared people.......Pat Boone on the other hand..........well, was Pat Boone. As accurate as this piece is, it's difficult to empathize with the likes of Frank, Tony and Perry given the long standing injustice
perpetrated on African American artists.

nyc, ny
There may be some truth to what she says, but isn't a Sinatra the wrong one to complain about these issues?

Cleveland, OH
Last weekend, I paid $150 for two tickets to see/hear Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and John Mellencamp. Who would know who ANY of those people were without airplay?
The deal for decades has been that radio stations paid the SONGWRITERS and that the artists benefited from the promotion of their work to sell records and concert tickets.
Ms. Sinatra has not done anything notable in 40 years, so she has nothing left to promote. But I guarantee you that, if she ever again did anything worthwhile and saleable, she would be glad to hear it on the radio. For free.
I'm sure Willie would rather get the $75 a toss for his concert than getting a nickel when a station in Peoria played "On The Road Again."

Todd Souvignier
New Orleans
This is an issue, and a desire, that dates back to the beginning of radio. The question was settled back in the '40s by the US Supreme Court, in the Whiteman case. Judge Learned Hand rejected the notion that record labels and artists should have a private tax on radio airplay. Songwriters and publishers were able to establish performance rights, and secure a revenue stream from radio airplay, but labels and artists failed. Unable to directly harvest revenue from radio, labels and artists resorted to treating radio as a promotional vehicle (as opposed to unfair competition) and set about courting and bribing broadcasters. Call it a quirk of history - in other countries labels and artists HAVE been able to establish performance rights, and get money from airplay – but the US Supreme Court didn't think it was appropriate. Here today, radio is culturally irrelevant due to homogenized corporate programming, and technologically obsolete thanks to Internet etc. Soaking broadcasters for more money, to line the pockets of record labels and a small coterie of superstar artists, sounds like a good way to push the few remaining independent broadcasters, and most music programming, right off the air.

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