Paying the Pipers


Idly flipping through the latest glossy pop music magazines, it’s easy to imagine that most musicians lead lives of leisure, living out a rock and roll fantasy filled with long days spent counting stacks of money. But in truth, only about 40 percent of performing musicians even make a living from their music, and many depend on regular income from royalties — payments made to songwriters and performers based on airplay, record sales, and live performances of their work. If a retailers’ lobbying group has its way in Congress, however, the amount of royalties paid out will soon be severely limited.

Senators Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) are pushing a bill titled “The Fairness in Musical Licensing Act” (S. 28), currently being heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee (Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) has entered the same bill in the House, as H.R. 789). In short, the bill would: absolve commercial establishments like bars and restaurants from paying royalties unless they charge admission; limit royalty payments for performances on radio, television, satellite and cable; and exempt commercial jingles under 60 seconds from royalties. Its opponents also claim it could exempt religious broadcasters from paying any royalties.

The National Restaurant Association and 17 other trade associations, calling themselves the “Fairness in Musical Licensing Coalition,” have lobbied hard for the bill. Currently, establishments that play music in-house, from sidewalk cafes to dental offices, pay a nominal fee (typically $500-$600 yearly) to music publishers such as Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI) and the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). National Religious Broadcasters, an association of Christian radio stations, supports the bill, arguing that its members should be exempt from this blanket royalty fee because most of their programming is not music-based; it also rejects the per-program license fees that publishers now offer to remedy that situation, claiming that these are too cumbersome and expensive.

ASCAP and BMI already have reached agreements with the National Licensed Beverage Association to exempt small “Mom-and-Pop” bars and restaurants from paying any royalties at all, which suggests that Helms, Thurmond and Sensenbrenner are jumping the gun — or jumping through hoops for the powerful National Restaurant Association, whose heavily Republican PAC gave the senators $6,000 each in 1995-96 (Sensenbrenner got just $5,000). Previous attempts with similar bills have never made it past committee, but this time the bill has more backers. Should it become law, musicians would find themselves squeezed tighter than ever — which is nobody’s musical fantasy.

What You Can Do

BMI’s and ASCAP’s Web sites feature sample letters to Congress, for use by concerned citizens or affiliated songwriters; ASCAP’s “Open Letter to Congress” has been signed by such luminaries as Stephen Sondheim, Billy Joel, Lesley Gore and Quincy Jones.

Independent organizations such as the Music Educators National Conference and the National Association of Songwriters have spoken out against the bill as well.