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

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

Aretha Franklin had a worldwide hit with ‘Respect’, but she didn’t write the song herself, Otis Redding did, so she was paid nothing, absolutely nothing, for the decades she was played on American radio.


When I tell friends that I went to Washington DC to lobby for the American Music Fairness Act, which allows musicians to get paid for radio broadcasts, they all react with shock.

“What, you don’t get paid when you’re played on the radio?” “No, as an artist I don’t get paid at all.” “Does anyone else get paid?” “Songwriters and music publishers, but not the artist who you hear singing it.”

And then I tell them that some of the few other countries that don’t pay musicians for radio broadcasts are our friends in Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. They roll their eyes and say, “That’s crazy!” China used to not pay, but now they pay. Russia pays! Nice bedfellows, huh? 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 decades of American radio airplay. That’s what I’m talking about.

Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U”? Not for her. Karen O’s “Under Pressure”? No. Willie Nelson’s “Always on My Mind”? Nada. Cat Power on “Ballad of a Thin Man”? Nothing. “Umbrella” and Rihanna? Uh-uh. “Irreplaceable” by Beyoncé? Never. “Get the Party Started” by Pink? Nope. The list goes on.

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

It was Bing Crosby who discovered (and helped finance) the taping of his shows so that he didn’t have to be present at every broadcast; instead, he could be on his great love, the golf course. The rise of taping in the United States is due to the popularity of golf!

Radio plays were once intended as a promotional tool

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

There’s some truth to it, but it seemed unfair at the time. We were making money from selling records back then, so we’d hang out with each other. But it never really made sense.

In all other democracies in the world this injustice has been corrected. For us artists it is clear that this does not have to happen in our country either.

We love playing and recording music. It’s exciting and fulfilling, but it’s also our livelihood. Like everyone else, we’ve come to realize that we need to be paid for our hard work, our investment, our creative energy and inspirations.

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Musicians are small entrepreneurs

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

Getting paid for radio airplay also has a domino effect. Because the United States doesn’t pay foreign artists for radio airplay, some other countries do the same, tit for tat. They hold on to an estimated $300 million a year that’s owed to American artists – and that will be released if the situation changes here when American radio starts paying their artists. This has been going on for so long that some countries, such as France, are funneling that money to organizations that promote their own artists, rather than just leaving it in the bank.

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How much would artists get from US broadcasts? The estimate is around $500 million. So after freeing up international performance royalties, it’s at least $800 million total. A lot of. It would be split between the artist, the backing band, and their label. Full disclosure – I personally benefit from it too.

Of course, the big broadcasters, and there are only a handful of them, are fighting this tooth and nail. They will say that it will hurt small businesses, but the law is structured in such a way that small broadcasters get a huge head start, just like religious broadcasters and public radio. It is really about the big commercial chain broadcasters, who actually make a lot of money.

Of course, the big networks still use the argument of ‘exposure’ and ‘promotion’, which is not entirely untrue. I have seen ‘Burning Down the House’ become a hit on the radio. But promotion like this is about introducing new music to an audience. Most of the songs that are played on the radio now are old and record stores are hard to find these days. So where is the promotion?

I bet our legislators are worried that these big broadcasters are not going to be too happy with a representative who voted for this bill. I’m just saying. But then look at how many musicians there are and how loud they can be. Do our representatives really want to go up against a bunch of small business owners?

I went to Washington a few years ago when a similar bill came up. It didn’t pass, but the good news is that this bill, 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 am thankful that this did not become a political game like so many others. AMFA has support from both sides of the aisle – how about that! So come on Washington, let’s do it.

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