The American Music Fairness Act is slowly making its way through the U.S. government with what appears to be rare bipartisan support. If this is the first time you've heard of the American Music Fairness Act and those words mean relatively nothing to you, well, you're not alone.
But the bill could have serious implications for at least one major component of recorded music in the United States. And, to many, it may be the first step in correcting several egregious historic wrongs in the recording music industry.
What Is The American Music Fairness Act?
In simple terms, the American Music Fairness Act is a new bill that would require radio stations to pay artists when they play their music. If you're just now learning that terrestrial radio stations (i.e. FM and AM radio stations) don't have to pay the person who owns the recording when they play music, you're still not alone. Very few people realize radio stations only have to pay songwriters — not artists, bands, performers, or producers, or whoever else may own the master recording copyright — when a song gets played on the radio.
Two U.S. Representatives introduced the American Music Fairness Act on June 24, 2021. According to The Recording Academy (the nonprofit body responsible for the GRAMMY Awards, among many other things), the act would also protect small and community radio stations with affordable exemptions while targeting the main culprits — massive media conglomerates.
"In 2019, music broadcasters made over $10 billion by selling ad revenue, yet did not pay artists for the product — the music – that generates this revenue," The Recording Academy said in a statement when the bill was introduced. "The American Music Fairness Act rights this wrong by requiring major radio stations to fairly compensate all artists for their property."
And This Thing Has A Chance Of Passing?
Believe it or not, yes. Even when up against big lobbyists and incredibly divisive politics, the American Music Fairness Act seems like such a no-brainer that it's making its way through the process with bipartisan support.
That first step began with the House Judiciary Committee marking up and approving the bill on Wednesday, December 7th. The next step is for the bill to go to the full chamber for a vote. After that, the Senate would need to also approve the bill.
That chamber introduced its own version of similar legislation in September, which is not uncommon. Essentially, the two bills will need to be reconciled and ultimately voted on again. So there's a long way to go in terms of the procedure, but artist advocates are cautiously optimistic.
In moving the American Music Fairness Act through committee, Chairman Jerrold Nadler said, "Imagine a profession in which you put in countless hours to create a product that is appreciated by millions of people, but while major companies can generate significant profits distributing your product, those companies pay you absolutely nothing for your efforts. This...is the reality for American recording artists and musicians when their music is played on AM/FM radio."
Of course, the bill isn't without its challengers. The National Association of Broadcasters (the radio lobby) has been fighting the effort, because of course they have. They haven't had to pay very much for their primary product pretty much since the inception of radio. The NAB introduced a separate bill called the Local Radio Freedom Act, which is unlikely to go to committee in this session of Congress.
What Does The American Music Fairness Act Mean?
Well, it means a whole lot if you're an artist whose music gets played on the radio. Even for smaller artists or legacy acts it could mean career-shifting revenue. It also means the United States might finally step out of the stone age — it's the only major country in the world where radio broadcasters are not required to pay money to people who own the copyrights of the recordings they're playing.
That's not to say qualifying radio stations only play major label acts, either. There are plenty of smaller market radio stations that still fall under the major conglomerate umbrella — meaning they'll still be required to pay to play music if the American Music Fairness Act passes — but also play developing or regional acts. Often times smaller labels or well-funded independents will try their hand at some of these "secondary market" radio stations to test the waters and see if a bigger, much more expensive push could help.
But beyond that, what does it mean for radio's viability? Many people don't know that prior to the 2000s, a lot of important radio stations were still independent, meaning they still ultimately decided what music to play. It's no coincidence that decades like the 80s and 90s felt so incredibly diverse in their music output. Back then, you heard way more different kinds of music on the radio because the people in charge of deciding what to play varied from town to town. Artists could become household names with several Top 40 hits. Nowadays you usually need a multi-week No. 1 for that kind of name recognition.
After all these stations got bought up by a few companies, they pretty much play pre-programmed set lists with very little room for personal curation. It's no coincidence that the onset of music piracy in the 2000s also led to an increased interest in personal mixtapes and burned CDs featuring all kinds of eclectic music that wasn't getting played on the radio.
With the advent of music streaming, radio stations have taken a massive backseat to music discovery. Whereas radio used to be the place to break an artist, now it's mostly only an option for well-funded major label machines trying to reinforce listener habits and artist familiarity. It's always been a bit of a walled garden, but now the walls are higher and the diversity of plants inside is embarrassingly plain.
Will Radio Continue To Dwindle?
The major radio organizations — including NAB — will tell you that rumors of radio's demise are often exaggerated. They point to obscure figures like the number of people who say they listen to radio at least once in any given week. (It's nearly 90 percent and has been for a very long time).
But even studies about radio paid for by radio have a hard time painting a rosy picture of the recent reality of decline. Radio advertising revenue remains somewhat steady, but it's often buoyed by large advertisers in local markets. Younger people continue to listen to less and less radio. There are also more and more ways to reach younger buyers.
Now that major radio could potentially actually have to pay for its product, it will be interesting to see where they turn to offset costs. Many of the ways radio measures its listenership (and value to advertisers) aren't as reliable as other forms of digital marketing that rely specifically on tracking conversions.