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David Byrne: Why radio should pay singers like Beyoncé and Willie Nelson

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 decades of U.S. radio airplay.

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Opinion contributor

When I tell friends I went to Washington, D.C., to lobby on behalf of the – which will enable musicians to get paid for radio play – they uniformly respond with a look of shock.

“What, you don’t get paid when you’re played on the radio?”“Nope, as a performer I get nothing.”“Does anybody get paid?”“Songwriters and music publishers, but not the artist you hear singing it.”

And then I tell them that some of the only other are our friends in Cuba, Iran and North Korea. Then they give me an eye roll that says, “That’s crazy!” China used to not pay, but they pay now. Russia pays! Nice bedfellows, eh? Nice example to the rest of the world!

Aretha Franklin had a worldwide hit with “Respect” – but she didn’t write the song, , so she got paid nothing – nothing! – for decades of U.S. radio airplay. That’s what I’m talking about.

Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”? Nothing to her. Karen O “Under Pressure”? Nope. Willie Nelson “”? Nada. Cat Power on “”? Nix. “” and Rihanna? Uh-uh. “” Beyoncé? Never. “Get the Party Started” Pink? Nope. The list goes on and on.

How did this happen? When it began, radio in the United States was positioned to musicians as a promotional tool to sell their sheet music; before recordings were available that was how music was “sold.” Music played on the radio was often performed live in those days. The artists were singing and playing live while you heard it in your home.

It was Bing Crosby who discovered (and helped finance) so he didn't have to be there for every broadcast; instead he could be with his great love, the golf course. Credit the advent of tape recording in the United States to the popularity of golf!

Radio play was once intended as a promotional tool

Records in various formats became popular, and radio play of these recordings was similarly positioned as a promotional tool. As recording artists we were fed this same justification for why we weren’t going to be paid for radio play – exposure that promotes your record sales and your live shows.

There’s a kernel of truth there, but it seemed unfair even then. We were indeed making money from record sales back in the day, so we went along to get along. But it never really made sense.

Beyoncé Knowles-Carter accepts the the iHeartRadio Innovator Award in Los Angeles  on April 01, 2024.

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

We love playing music and recording it. It’s thrilling and fulfilling, but it is also our livelihood. Like anyone else we have come to realize , our investment, our creative energy and inspirations.

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Musicians are small business owners

We are, most of us, small businesses, entrepreneurs, risk takers – we employ other musicians and a whole ecology of other professionals to run those businesses. Making music is such an amazing thing, but it’s not always easy. It takes a lot of work, and it doesn’t always pay as much as its worth.

Getting paid for radio play has knock-on benefits as well. Because for radio play, some other countries reciprocate, tit for tat. They are holding an estimated $300 million a year that is due to U.S. artists – and that will be released if the situation here changes when U.S. radio starts paying their artists. This has been going on so long that some countries, like France, funnel that money to organizations that promote their own artists, rather than having it just sit in a bank.

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How much would artists get from U.S. broadcasts? The estimate is about $500 million. So, after unlocking international performance royalties, it’s at least $800 million total. A lot. It would get divided among the performer, the backing band and their label. Full disclosure ‒ I personally stand to benefit as well.

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

Naturally the big broadcasters, and there are only a handful of them, are fighting this tooth and nail. They’ll say it will hurt small businesses, but the bill is structured so that small broadcasters get a huge break, as do religious broadcasters and public radio. It’s really about the big commercial chain broadcasters, who are in fact making a lot of money.

The big broadcasters naturally still use the “exposure” and “promotion” argument, which isn’t completely untrue. I witnessed “” become a hit due to radio play. But promotion like that is about introducing new music to an audience. Most of the songs played on the radio now are old, and record stores are hard to find these days. So where’s the promotion?

I’ll bet there’s a worry on the part of our lawmakers that these big broadcasters might not look kindly on a representative who voted for this bill. Just sayin’. But then look how many musicians there are and how vocal they can be. Do our representatives really want to go up against a bunch of small business people?

I went to Washington some years ago when a similar bill came up. It didn’t pass, but the good news is that this one, the American Music Fairness Act (AMFA), is better. It’s , which is rare these days, so there’s that to celebrate as well.

I’m thankful this has not become a political football like so much else. AMFA is supported on both sides of the aisle – how about that! So, c’mon Washington, let’s get it done.

Singer and songwriter is a founding member of and a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

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