For as long as music has been recorded, the performer has been screwed. In the earliest days of the phonograph, field producers traveled the country finding new performers and (as the law describes it) “fixed” their performances as sound recordings. Most artists, as a condition of being recorded, discovered later that they’d been hit with a one-two punch. They signed away their rights to the performance to the record company, and often the rights to their songs to the field producer.
The Carter Family found this out when they tried to release songbooks of their legendary recordings, only to find out they’d signed over exclusive rights to producer Ralph Peer; over nearly a century the music industry’s exploitation of artists has been a national disgrace. Somehow this sad fact has escaped notice by the trade association of our broadcast industry, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB).
That is, until now.
The NAB has had a sudden attack of moral conscience, occasioned by the record labels trying to shake them down to start paying the performer of a work as well as the songwriter. They’re now suddenly standing up for the poor downtrodden artist. Until stations began playing records in the 50s, most music on the radio was performed live, by artists who were paid by the stations.
When commercial records took over at the rise of “disk jockey” shows, the musicians unions forced stations to hire “record turners,” but those have now disappeared as well, and they didn’t represent the recording artist, they represented the legacy musicians who were fired because they were no longer needed.
Through the rise of internet and satellite radio, the NAB stood by mute as those new media agreed to pay performance fees, often to the record companies who had usurped the performers’ rights through work for hire contracts. So the NAB’s sudden concern rings a little hollow, but not as hollow as their attempt to misrepresent performance fees as a “tax.” Paying a performer for a song’s performance on the radio is no more a “performance tax” than paying a station to run commercials is a “marketing tax.”
The NAB is too late. The downtrodden performers have already found a way out of the mess through owning their own labels and often distributing their own music. This means that the NAB is only fighting the RIAA for the older product. Performance fees for the new product will likely go right to the performer.
But the worst thing the NAB has done with this ruse, is to prove that it will say anything to make money. That’s the wrong thing for a trade association to do when it represents the companies who claim they should be trusted to hold public licenses to use the public airwaves to bring us news and “official information.”