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And a new deal has been struck between the biggest radio network in the U.S., and a major country music label. The agreement marks the first time that a broadcast radio network will pay performers - and not just songwriters - when their music plays on its airwaves.

NPR's Laura Sydell has more.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: It's been more than 40 years since Jose Feliciano's version of "Light My Fire" hit the Top 10.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT MY FIRE")

JOSE FELICIANO: (Singing) You know that it would be untrue. You know that I would be a liar.

SYDELL: Yet, for every time it's been played on traditional radio since then, he hasn't seen a dime in royalties for his performance. He might see a few pennies for his re-arrangement of the song, but most of the money from radio play goes to the folks who wrote the original: the members of the Doors, and the estate of the late singer Jim Morrison.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIGHT MY FIRE")

JIM MORRISON: (Singing) ...try to set the night on fire, yeah.

SYDELL: The reason for the disparity goes back to the 1909 Copyright Act, and its short shrift of sound recordings. Despite challenges, lawmakers have reasoned over the years that performers were getting publicity from radio play, so only the composers should get paid. For decades, artists and labels have been unhappy with the arrangement - until last week.

SCOTT BORCHETTA: The Big Machine Label Group is the first United States record company in history to have performance rights for our artists.

SYDELL: This is Scott Borchetta, the CEO of a small, country music label that has some big acts, including Taylor Swift and Tim McGraw. Big Machine's deal with Clear Channel Communications will pay royalties to the label's artists when their songs are played over the air on Clear Channel stations. But the network's Wendy Goldberg is touting the deal as a victory for its online operations.

WENDY GOLDBERG: The key, for us, is that we believe it will accelerate growth and innovation in digital radio.

SYDELL: That's right - for the nation's largest radio network, the deal is about growing its Internet business. Right now, U.S. law requires Clear Channel to pay performers royalties every time their songs are heard online on the company's station stream, but not over the air. Goldberg says the deal is about evening out the payment system between the Internet and terrestrial radio.

GOLDBERG: When you're looking at a per play model, there's no way you can build a business model around that. You don't know how many songs are going to be streamed.

SYDELL: The new deal lets Clear Channel get around the per-song online royalty when it comes to Big Machine artists. It lets the network pay a lower Internet royalty based on a percentage of its income from station streams. In exchange, Clear Channel will start to pay Big Machine and its artists broadcast royalties. But radio accounts for 98 percent of Clear Channel's business right now, so this wasn't a cheap deal.

GOLDBERG: But we really believe the future is in digital.

SYDELL: But for some companies, the present is in digital. Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora, the online streaming service, says the new deal highlights the fact that the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board created an unequal system when it made online radio pay while giving over-the-air companies a pass.

TIM WESTERGREN: These different mediums all exist alongside each other; you know, in cars, on consumer electronics devices, smart phones. And yet they're subject to radically different royalty standards, which is - it's sort of nonsensical now.

SYDELL: Westergren says more than 50 percent of his revenue goes to pay performance royalties - a cost his radio competitors don't have. Groups that advocate for musicians are happy to see the deal, but they also believe it isn't setting the right precedent. Casey Rae is with the nonprofit music advocacy group Future of Music Coalition.

CASEY RAE: Big Machine Records is an independent label with some superstar acts, so I imagine that some of those big-name artists can get favorable terms in any deal. But it begs the question about all of the other artists out there, who may not have that kind of bargaining power.

SYDELL: Both Rae and Westergren think that Congress needs to step in and create a standard royalty system that applies to terrestrial, satellite and Internet radio. Big Machine Label Group CEO Scott Borchetta agrees. He hopes the deal his label just made sends a signal to legislators.

BORCHETTA: There is a way to do this. It's very simple. Let's take care of the artists, and stop the madness.

SYDELL: But, for now, when you hear this song on the radio, Lauryn Hill isn't getting paid for singing her heart out.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILLING ME SOFTLY WITH HIS SONG")

FUGEES: (Singing) Strumming my pain with his fingers. Yes, he was singing my...

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