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Fight for Your Right

Does the U.S. belong with the Axis of Evil?

It's not every day you can flip on C-SPAN and see chrome-dome Smashing Pumpkins front man Billy Corgan testifying before the House Judiciary Committee, an image reminiscent of previous rocker/lawmaker showdowns like Pearl Jam vs. Ticketmaster or Frank Zappa battling Tipper Gore's Parental Advisory stickers at the PMRC hearings.

But there he was last month, registering his support for the Performance Rights Act, one of the more interesting bits of music-related legislation to come along in a while. And believe it or not, Corgan and the committee were on the same side.

Sponsored by House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers (D-MI), and co-sponsored by a host of legislators including Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, the PRA would require terrestrial radio stations to pay royalties to performers in addition to songwriters and publishers such as ASCAP and BMI. (Cable, satellite and Internet radio platforms already do.)

Somehow, it seems, when the original copyright legislation governing broadcast transmissions — Title 17 of the United States Code, if you're keeping score at home — was drafted around 1909, nobody bothered to mention that the voices emanating from newfangled inventions like the wireless and phonograph might deserve a little something for their efforts.

"Radio was in its infancy, and since sound recordings had only recently come onto the market, they were not included," Corgan told the committee. "The old-fashioned radio business has held onto this exemption for over 80 years — a law made in a bygone era for a set of reasons long past."

Historically, some artists were able to sidestep this oversight by simply founding their own record labels or publishing companies, like Frank Sinatra did with Reprise Records. Others, like Elvis Presley, along with his Svengali/manager, Colonel Tom Parker, simply tacked their names onto the songwriting credits whether or not they had anything to do with composing the actual music or lyrics. (They generally didn't.)

As a rule, artists and radio had a tacit, tit-for-tat agreement. Radio would play their songs, which in turn would drive listeners into record stores to buy their albums or singles. But, as Corgan pointed out, that notion grows more outdated by the hour. As an engine to expose people to new music, radio loses more ground to the Internet and even TV and films every day and, not coincidentally, record sales are down to nearly half what they were a decade ago.

"We are increasingly moving toward a world where consumers get their music through performance of it — whether through standard radio, niche programming or on-demand access," Recording Industry Association of America Chairman and CEO Mitch Bainwol testified. "Promotion for sales is quickly becoming a thing of the past."

So, worry some radio-station ­owners, would they, should this bill become law. While the proposed royalty fee may be a drop in the bucket for broadcast titans like Clear Channel and Infinity, that bucket is a lot smaller for other stations, especially those that cater to minority, rural and/or religious audiences. Given the current state of the economy, they're (understandably) concerned about paying out any more money than they absolutely have to.

"I'd tell my legislators in Washington, D.C. to vote against it, because naturally it would hurt us," says Michael Petrizzo, General Manager and principal stockholder in KCOH (1430 AM), the Third Ward-based station that's been a linchpin of Houston's African-American community for more than 40 years.

"It would cost us so much money," he adds. "We pay enough money now to ASCAP and BMI, and I'm sure the money goes to the right place."

(In an interesting side note, Petrizzo says he's ready to retire after 43 years and has found a buyer for KCOH. He won't say who that is, only that it's a Houston-based group that doesn't own any other radio stations, and the FCC should approve the transaction by the end of the month.)

Get this: The only other industrialized countries that don't compensate performers when their works are played over the air are Iran, China and North Korea. And to their credit, lawmakers have tried to make the process as painless as possible for radio stations. Jackson Lee introduced an amendment to the PRA that caps the fee for radio stations with an income of $1.25 million or less at $5,000 per year, and $1,000 for noncommercial stations such as KPFT, KTRU or KACC.

The committee adopted the amendment and approved the PRA by a 21-9 vote May 13; it now faces an as-yet-unscheduled vote before the full House. If approved, it would go to the Senate and then to President Barack Obama's desk. You remember Schoolhouse Rock, right?

And yes, five grand a year may sting, but even Petrizzo admits it wouldn't drive a major-market station like KCOH out of business. And, notes Houston Professional Musicians' Association president (and percussionist for the Theater Under the Stars orchestra) Lovie Smith-Wright, musicians could definitely use the money.

"It probably would put some groceries on somebody's table, or it might help pay for some medicine," she says. "You know, $30 goes a long way for somebody who has nothing."

It's hard not to side with the performers here. Yes, music is an art, but it's also a commodity radio stations have been using to generate billions in advertising revenue for decades. No other profession that manufactures a product for public consumption, whether hand tools or newspaper articles, would sit still while others got rich off their labors and didn't cut them in on the deal.

And when it comes to ownership, does the fact that George Strait didn't write "Amarillo by Morning" or Britney Spears "Oops! I Did It Again" make it any less theirs? When someone sings a song — and especially sings it well enough that radio programmers deem it worthy of broadcasting to millions of people several times a day — some notion of ownership inevitably transfers from the author to the performer. (And lest we forget, songwriters' rights aren't at issue here.)

After all, nobody calls a radio station to request Lukasz Gottwald, Claude Kelly and Max Martin's "My Life Would Suck Without You," Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins's "Before He Cheats" or Eddie Holland and Norman Whitfield's "Ain't Too Proud to Beg." They're thinking Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and the Temptations, of course.

It may pinch their pocketbooks a little, but it's time for radio stations to step up and start paying artists for the services they provide, the same way they would for office supplies or the dude who makes the bottled-water delivery every week.

Otherwise, where performers' rights are concerned, the U.S. will go right on ahead being part of the Axis of Evil. CHRIS GRAY

chris.gray@houstonpress.com

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