Music

Randy Travis Asks Radio to Pay Up in House Hearing on ‘100 Years of Inequity for Recording Artists’

Country star Randy Travis had members of Congress gushing and brought star power to an otherwise businesslike hearing titled “Radio, Music, and Copyrights: 100 Years of Inequity for Recording Artists,” held Wednesday (June 26) by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property, and the Internet.

“This is a great honor,” said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chair of the subcommittee, adding that the other three witnesses “will have to live in his shadow.” 

Travis, who has had difficulty speaking since suffering a stroke in 2013, was represented at the hearing by his wife, Mary Travis. His circumstances made him a fitting witness and supporter of the American Music Fairness Act (AMFA), a bill that would create a performance right for sound recordings at terrestrial radio. Unable to sing, Travis has given up touring and relies on royalties for his long-term health care. A country artist who performed others’ compositions would benefit from royalties from continued airplay on terrestrial radio.

“This piece of legislation is essential to correct 100 year old issue regarding artists and non payment for their work performed on the most prominent music platform in America — one which they helped to build and sustain,” said Mary Travis.

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AMFA would establish fair market value for radio performance royalties similarly to how rates are set for streaming platforms. It also compels foreign radio stations to pay U.S.-based artists for the performance of their songs. Outside of the U.S., radio stations commonly avoid paying performance royalties to American artists and record labels despite the existence of a similar performance right in those countries.

The bill would task the Copyright Royalty Board, the three-judge body that determines streaming, satellite radio and mechanical royalties rates, with setting the royalty rates for the new license. Under AMFA, stations that earn less than $1.5 million in annual revenue (and whose parent companies make less than $10 million in annual revenue) to pay $500 annually. Small, non-commercial stations with annual revenue less than $100,000 would pay as little as $10 per year.

“I think you’ve gotten the balance exactly right,” Mike Huppe, president and CEO of SoundExchange, told members of the committee. While small broadcasters would pay modest fees under AMFA, the large national corporations that dominate the broadcasting industry would pay more. Huppe argued they could easily afford it. “This is a $15 billion business in the US,” he said. “Eighty-eight percent of all Americans listen to radio. The biggest broadcast groups are becoming bigger and more powerful.”

Radio broadcasters don’t see it that way, though. Curtis LeGeyt, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, warned the committee that any additional royalties would be too much. “AMFA would impose a new royalty on local radio that is financially untenable for broadcasters of all sizes,” he said. Eddie Harrell Jr, regional vp and general manager of Radio One, agreed. “Make no mistake that a new performance royalty imposed on local stations would create harm for local stations, listeners and the recording industry itself,” said Harrell. Local broadcasters, he said, “are operating on extremely tight margins right now.”

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The most dire warnings from LeGeyt and Harrell often centered around AMFA’s threat to radio stations’ ability to serve their communities. Because stations’ revenue are not growing, Harrell explained, any additional expense threatens services stations provide to their communities — he cited a program that collects donated items for needy families — and undermine their ability to broadcast during natural disasters. “Those are the things that are lost in what we do as opposed to just playing the music and so our ability to lead community efforts like that would be impacted by any new expense that we’d have to endure.”

While Huppe acknowledged the value radio stations provide to their communities, he wondered why musicians shouldn’t be paid when stations pay to syndicate talk radio shows and license sporting events. “Why should Randy Travis have to be the one to bear the load of this community effort and all the charitable work?,” Huppe asked.

Artificial intelligence’s threat to the music business was interspersed into the conversation about performance rights and royalties. Travis proved an exceptional witness on this topic, too, having recently released his first new track since his stroke in 2013, “Where That Came From,” with the help of generative AI software to recreate his voice. (Issa paused the hearing for a minute to play the song over the loudspeakers by pressing his smartphone next to his microphone.) “His piece of AI work was humanistic and artistic,” said Mary Travis. “And that’s the difference [between] the good and the bad AI.”

When asked by Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) if users of generative AI software should be able to create unauthorized copies of a singer’s voice, Mary Travis was succinct: “Absolutely not,” she said flatly. Later, she compared unauthorized use of an artist’s voice to identity theft. “There needs to be laws that are in place to keep that from happening,” she said, “which means consent and compensation and attribution and provenance.”

But the hearing mostly focused on the economics of the radio business and the two sides’ inability to come to agreement. Huppe said the NAB’s strategy “is to run out the clock” and wait for another bill to be introduced in the next Congressional term. LeGeyt took “significant issue” with Huppe’s characterization and blamed the recording industry’s representatives for not supporting the conversations. “NAB stands willing to be in a conference room,” he said. 

Rep. Issa, however, doubted LeGeyt’s willingness to make a deal with record labels. Noting that the NAB has been negotiating on Radio One’s behalf, Rep. Issa asked Harrell if his stations “would be willing to pay something to get this problem to go away?” “Mr. Chairman, I would not say that,” Harrell replied.

Minutes later, Issa took an admonishing tone with LeGeyt. The NAB did not offer “one penny” in higher royalties in their negotiations, Issa claimed, and if artists started to encourage people to listen only to radio station’s streaming offering, the cost to stations would be “far more than a modest concession,” said Issa.  

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