American middle-class musicians are worth fighting for

The Irish tell the story of a man who comes to the gates of heaven and asks to be let in, and Saint Peter says, ‘Of course! Show us your scars.” The man says, “But… I have no scars,” and Saint Peter replies, “What a pity. Wasn’t there anything worth fighting for?”

We musicians are used to fighting. For our livelihood, our families, our dreams. In recent years, we’ve fought battles we haven’t sought or provoked against powerful corporate forces that are devaluing the value of music. Streaming companies, music pirates and AM/FM radio stations in the United States pay nothing – zero – to artists for radio broadcasts.

It’s shocking, but true: the United States is the only democratic country in the world where artists are not paid for radio broadcasts. Only Iran, North Korea and China are behind the United States in this regard.

Broadcasters make billions of dollars every year from our music, and artists don’t make a cent. This affects not only the artist, but also session musicians, recording engineers and songwriters. Pretty much everyone in the music economy.

Isn’t being paid fairly for your work a fundamental American value?

In recent years, I’ve met members of Congress about the rocky economic landscape musicians navigate. Each encounter was memorable and meaningful, but one in particular has stayed with me.

I explained to a congressman how these issues affect not only the robust bank accounts of superstars, but also musicians like me. Musicians who, like other Americans, have to pay families, mortgages, and health insurance. With some surprise, he leaned forward and said, “Wow… you have a mortgage.”

Before I could fill the sudden awkwardness, he spoke again and very sincerely. “Forgive me if I sounded so naive, but we don’t hear that sentiment about musicians often enough.” He continued: “Every day in Congress we trumpet the fate of the middle class, and yet here you are: a middle class musician asking for basic honesty.” It was an emotional moment – and to be honest – I choked. It was striking to see how he “got it” in real time, and I thought it was brave for him to say that.

He’s also right: I’m a middle-class American musician. And maybe we don’t hear musicians described like that often enough. But we should.

I am a professional musician since I was 13. I am an artist, songwriter, performer, multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer and record producer. I can lay claim to a successful career. But sure, no one would claim I’m a ‘star’.

There are very few musicians. As in other professions, the vast majority of working professionals in music are middle class and the downward economic pressures we face are affecting us disproportionately.

But now there is hope.

After years of grassroots organization and growing political will, a bipartisan group in Congress introduced the American Music Fairness Act. This bill — backed by both Republicans and Democrats, even in this polarized political environment — would close the loophole that has left terrestrial radio broadcasters paying without performers for nearly a century. No stroke of the pen could hit a greater number of American middle-class musicians.

Moreover, passing the bill would put billions of dollars back into the American economy: because we don’t pay international artists for radio broadcasts here in the United States, other democratic countries now don’t pay American artists in their Nations. The bill would end this de facto embargo.

Broadcasters claim that radio royalties are not necessary because they give artists ‘exposure’. Musicians can’t pay their electricity bills with exposure.

Broadcasters are creating fear by calling any proposed royalty a “tax.” This is not a tax. This is a wage.

Broadcasters claim the bill would kill local radio. But the bill specifically protects small broadcasters: For stations earning less than $1 million per year, their annual royalty payment is capped at $500, or $1.37 per day.

Broadcasters say the bill would stifle innovation. American music makers don’t need a lesson in innovation. Rock & Roll is an American innovation. Hip hop is an American innovation. Jazz, Blues, Country, Gospel, Bluegrass and so many others are each individual American innovations.

These false claims and attempts to deceive billion-dollar broadcasting conglomerates are to be expected, but one truth cuts through them all:

Music is one of the things that still makes America that the world still wants. The people who make that music should be paid fairly for their work.

This is going to be a struggle, that’s for sure. We will have to fight against these lies and fight for our profession. We will have to fight by organizing, training and advocacy. We will have to fight for the American Music Fairness Act by putting political pressure on our leaders (you can sign this new petition here: IRespectMusic.org).

We all know Congress acts when real people care enough to let them do it.

This is the time.

The battle has come. It’s something American middle-class musicians can win.

And if someone asks in years how we got our well-deserved scars, we’ll say, “From something worth fighting for.”

Blake Morgan is a singer-songwriter, music producer and activist.

.

Leave a Comment