What do Beyoncé and Willie Nelson have in common? The radio doesn’t pay them

What do Beyoncé and Willie Nelson have in common? The radio doesn’t pay them
What do Beyoncé and Willie Nelson have in common? The radio doesn’t pay them

Aretha Franklin had a worldwide hit with “Respect” – but she didn’t write the song, Otis Redding did. That’s why she got nothing for the decades it was played on US radio – nothing at all!


When I tell friends that I traveled to Washington, DC to lobby for the American Music Fairness Act – which would allow musicians to get paid for their radio appearances – they invariably react with shocked expressions on their faces.

“What, you don’t get paid when you’re played on the radio?” “Nope, as an artist I don’t get paid.” “Does anyone get paid?” “Songwriters and music publishers, but not the artist you hear singing it.”

And then I tell them that some of the few other countries that don’t pay musicians for radio appearances are our friends in Cuba, Iran and North Korea. Then they roll their eyes and say, “That’s crazy!” China used to not pay, but now it pays. Russia pays! Nice bedfellows, right? A nice example for the rest of the world!

Aretha Franklin had a worldwide hit with “Respect” – but she didn’t write the song, Otis Redding did. So she got paid nothing – nothing! – for the decades of airing it on US radio. That’s what I’m talking about.

“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor? No problem for her. “Under Pressure” by Karen O? Nope. “Always on My Mind” by Willie Nelson? Nada. Cat Power on “Ballad of a Thin Man”? Nothing. “Umbrella” and Rihanna? Errrr. “Irreplaceable” Beyoncé? Never. “Get the Party Started” by Pink? Nope. The list is endless.

How did this come about? In the beginning, radio in the USA was a promotional tool for musicians to sell their sheet music. Before recordings, music was “sold” this way. Music on the radio was often played live. The artists sang and played live while you listened to them in your own home.

It was Bing Crosby who discovered (and financed) tape recordings of his shows so that he didn’t have to attend every show but could instead pursue his great love, the golf course. The popularity of golf is thanks to the introduction of tape recordings in the United States!

Radio plays were once intended as advertising media

Vinyl records in various formats became popular and radio exposure of these recordings was used as a promotional tool. As recording artists, we were given the same justification for not being paid for radio exposure – exposure that boosted our record sales and our live performances.

There’s a grain of truth in that, but even then it seemed unfair. We were actually making money from record sales back then, so we joined in to fit in. But it never really made sense.

Every other democracy in the world has corrected this injustice, which makes it clear to us artists that it doesn’t have to be this way in our country either.

We love making and recording music. It’s exciting and fulfilling, but it’s also our livelihood. Like everyone else, we’ve realized that we should be paid for our hard work, our investment, our creative energy and inspiration.

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Musicians are small business owners

Most of us are small business owners, risk takers – we employ other musicians and a whole group of other professionals to run these businesses. Making music is such a great thing, but it’s not always easy. It’s a lot of work and not always worth what it’s worth.

Getting paid for radio appearances also has knock-on benefits. Because the United States doesn’t pay foreign artists for radio appearances, some other countries are reciprocating in kind. They are withholding an estimated $300 million a year owed to U.S. artists – and that will be released if the situation here changes, when U.S. radio stations start paying her artists. This has been going on for so long that some countries, like France, direct the money to organizations that support their own artists instead of just leaving it in a bank.

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How much would artists receive from US broadcasts? The estimate is around $500 million. So after deducting international performance licenses, the total would be at least $800 million. A lot. It would be split between the artist, the backing band, and their label. Full disclosure: I would personally benefit from this as well.

Of course, the big broadcasters – and there are only a handful of them – are fighting it with all their might. They say it would hurt small businesses, but the law is designed to give big relief to small broadcasters, as well as religious broadcasters and public radio stations. In reality, it’s the big commercial broadcasters who are actually making a lot of money.

Of course, the major broadcasters still use the “exposure” and “advertisement” argument, which is not entirely wrong. I saw “Burning Down the House” become a hit through radio broadcasts. But such advertising is about introducing new music to the audience. Most of the songs played on the radio today are old, and record stores are hard to find these days. So where’s the advertising?

I bet our MPs are worried that these big broadcasters might not be well disposed towards a MP who voted for this bill. Just saying. But look at how many musicians there are and how loud they can be. Do our MPs really want to compete against a bunch of small business owners?

I was in Washington a few years ago when a similar bill was mooted. It didn’t pass, but the good news is that this one, the American Music Fairness Act (AMFA), is better. It’s a bipartisan bill, which is rare these days, so that’s something to celebrate, too.

I’m thankful this hasn’t become a political football like so many other things. AMFA has support from both sides of the aisle – how about that! So come on, Washington, let’s get this done.

Singer and songwriter David Byrne is a founding member of Talking Heads and a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

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