Sunday, March 28, 2010

Performers' royalties for music played on satellite, Web radio stack up

Wayne Moss, a 72-year-old rocker from Nashville who played with Bob Dylan, doesn't listen to satellite radio. He's never heard of Pandora, the Internet radio station.
So he was surprised when he got a call from a stranger in Washington, D.C., telling him he had a check coming because of his satellite and Internet radio play.

"It's a wonderful thing," Moss said. "If they want to start playing my music in outer space, that sounds good to me."

Recording artists aren't paid for their performances on traditional, over-the-air radio. In a legal arrangement that dates to the early days of radio, publishers and songwriters are paid for radio play, but the performing artists aren't.

That means people such as Moss — who gets constant radio play for performances on everything from Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde album to Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" — just aren't getting paid for traditional radio. They get paid if they wrote the song, but they don't get paid if they play it.

In a quirk of legal maneuvering in 1998, the recording artists managed to get Congress to pass a law mandating payments for satellite and Internet radio performances, but not for traditional radio.

This was during the nascent days of the digital media industry, before it had much lobbying clout.

In those days, digital radio wasn't making money. But that is changing. The challenge now is finding and paying all those artists and their descendants for the digital radio play that goes on around the clock.

"You'd be surprised how hard it is to give away money," said Laura Williams, who works for SoundExchange in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization created by the federal government to distribute the money to recording artists.

Williams estimated that there is $50 million in unclaimed royalties for artists who haven't been found, haven't registered or haven't gotten the credit due for their performances on albums.

One of the largest problems is what's called "bad data," in which good records weren't kept of who played on what albums. Some investigators go through session logs to look for artists who recorded on individual albums or CDs.

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