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Gloria Estefan: Congress should turn the beat around on royalties

Singer supports bill that would pay musicians for plays on terrestrial radio

Gloria Estefan performs onstage during the Latin Grammy Awards in November 2021. On Wednesday she did a different kind of performing, appearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee.
Gloria Estefan performs onstage during the Latin Grammy Awards in November 2021. On Wednesday she did a different kind of performing, appearing in front of the House Judiciary Committee. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for The Latin Recording Academy file photo)

Grammy-winning musician and Miami Sound Machine lead singer Gloria Estefan had a performance in a very different kind of venue Wednesday — she gave testimony in front of the House Judiciary Committee.

Estefan appeared at the virtual hearing in support of a bill that would compensate musicians on terrestrial radio similar to how they are compensated on streaming platforms. 

“This loophole has been around since performers were performing live on radio,” she said. “Singers that don’t write music haven’t made a penny for their songs being played.”

The legislation from the bipartisan duo of Reps. Ted Deutch and Darrell Issa, dubbed the “American Music Fairness Act,” was unveiled this summer. It would set up a tiered fee system that charges smaller and nonprofit radio stations less than the large conglomerates like iHeartMedia, which owns more than 800 stations across the nation. 

Lawmakers spent part of the hourslong hearing heaping praise on Estefan, who has been touring for nearly a half-century. 

“I still have all the cassettes,” said Texas Democratic Rep. Sylvia R. Garcia, who confessed she hadn’t upgraded her collection to CDs.

“I don’t believe you’ve been performing for 46 years — you look like you were born 46 years ago,” said Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, which elicited a chuckle and a “Thank you for that” from the 64-year-old. 

The Cuban-born musician used one of her own songs as an example of how songwriters get paid for spins on FM and AM radio, while musicians and performing artists don’t. 

“The song ‘Conga,’ that was my idea, but written by my drummer,” she said. When its popularity skyrocketed in 1985 and radio stations played it over and over, only he got paid.

“Fortunately, we’d been able to tour in the best years that music had,” she said. “As long as you were selling records, actual physical copies, which no longer exist, there was an amount that we were paid: 7.7 cents per song, per side.”

But as record sales have largely evaporated in the digital age and the pandemic grounded touring musicians, the revenue for those singers and studio musicians who record those songs would be a lifeline. 

Grammy-winning producer Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, who helped record the smash Bruno Mars hit “Uptown Funk,” said the impact of getting paid for the radio plays would be enormous for the roughly 20 people involved in recording the song at his Memphis recording studio.

“It would probably increase all of our tax brackets if we received that income,” he said. “It would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars to the backing musicians, to the producers, to the engineers.”

Congress managed to find key points of compromise when it passed a broad package in 2018 called the Music Modernization Act. It was seen as a rare bipartisan win that managed to satisfy large portions of the music world while streamlining copyright issues for the 21st century. But several issues, like artist pay for radio play, remain unresolved and can spark strong opinions. 

“The only other countries on the planet that do not pay artists, singers and musicians for the use of their work on terrestrial radio are Iran and North Korea. Do we really want to be on that list?” Dave Pomeroy, president of the Nashville Musicians Association, asked the committee. The bassist, writer and producer testified that not only do some not get paid when their songs are played, but other countries refuse to pay American musicians until U.S. broadcasters start paying foreign artists. 

Broadcasters have argued that for the past century there has been an implicit pact that the stations playing the music would drive fans to record stores and concert venues. Requiring terrestrial radio stations to begin compensating musicians could also cause financial hardship on broadcasters, critics argued.

Several members of the committee, both Democrats and Republicans, appeared receptive to the musicians’ plight during their questioning.

California Republican Rep. Tom McClintock asked witness Curtis LeGeyt, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, about what he saw as musicians’ property rights to compensation when their music plays.

“This is an issue of property rights,” LeGeyt, whose trade association represents more than 5,200 radio stations, told McClintock. “But for broadcasters who have been publicly performing music for 100 years, they have been paying the right that was established in the 1919 Copyright Act, which is the copyright that’s held by the songwriter.”

McClintock pushed back. “To me, that is not serving the purpose of government, which is to protect the property rights of its citizens,” he said. “Just because we’ve been doing it for 100 years doesn’t necessarily make it right.”

The fate of the legislation remains unclear, but advocates like former New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley projected confidence that the bill could pass this Congress. A companion bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate in the coming weeks, and Crowley said an advocacy effort is underway to woo senators toward supporting the measure.

“We’re working with offices in the Senate in a bipartisan way to ensure that there is comparable legislation in the Senate,” he said at a news conference Tuesday. “This comes down to really a social justice issue.” 

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