Mr. Corgan Goes to Washington

corgancapitolhillBilly Corgan recently visited Congress to speak to a Senatorial committee in favor of revising an act that would force radio broadcast stations to pay more money for airing music. As it stands now, stations have to pay royalties to songwriters whenever they play a song. If the law (called the Performance Rights Act) is amended, they’ll have to pay both the songwriter(s) and the artist(s) who performed it. So is this an act of stupefying greed on the part of a well-to-do and prolific rock star or an act of fairness to the people who give us songs we all cherish (or loathe, depending on the group/performer)? What Mr. Corgan had to say to Congress and my own analysis are ahead.

What follows is a transcript of Corgan’s testimony before Congress:

“I'd like to thank Chairman Conyers and the Committee for this opportunity to appear before you today about the Performance Rights Act. I'm here as a representative of the musicFIRST coalition, to give voice to fellow artists and musicians who have joined together to assert their right to be compensated for the airing of their musical performances on terrestrial radio.

Because of my experiences in the music business for over twenty years, I have a particular sensitivity when it comes to artists' rights, and who controls the distribution, and therefore, the worth of those rights. Like many of my peers, I come from a working-class background, beginning my musical journey playing in dingy bars and college lunchrooms. Being a performer requires countless hours of dedication to your craft. It is not an easy business to undertake, and for every success story, there are many who have not had the opportunities that I've had.

I was able to find an audience, in no small measure, because of the long support of my music by terrestrial radio. I am a big fan of radio, and am very interested in its continued health and well-being. Terrestrial radio has helped me to discover many of the artists that became influential to my life and artistic pursuits. I by no means see them as the bad guy.

The change to the law we are here to discuss only redresses an outmoded, unfair practice that favors one participant's needs over another. This legislation is simply a form of restoration to artists long overdue.

The rights of any artist are often rife with vague distinctions and contradictions, as the worth of a creative endeavor cannot be calculated by any science. Works of art are judged subjectively, and if deemed good enough, plugged into a vast system that attempts to establish their mettle and eventually capitalize on that value. The debate over what any piece of art should command on an open market is as old as time itself.

As it stands currently, if you have written a song and you have the good fortune of being played on terrestrial radio, then you, as the author, are entitled to a fixed form of compensation as established by Congress. This compensation, of course, recognizes the unique contribution that the author has made to the creation of the song. Conversely, if you also happen to be a performer on that very same song, by law, terrestrial radio owes you no form of compensation at all. The decision behind this long-held inequity stems back to 1909 when radio was in its infancy, and since sound recordings had only recently come onto the market, they were not included. The old fashioned radio business has held onto this exemption for over 80 years -- a law made in a bygone era for a set of reasons long past.

This landmark exemption however stripped performers of their right to a free market evaluation of the value of their recorded works. From my perspective, this issue is one of fundamental fairness. If the performance of a song has value to a particular terrestrial radio station in its airing, I believe it is only right to compensate those performers who have created this work.

Simply put, if a station plays a song, both the author and the performer should be paid. These particular performances must have value to the stations or they wouldn't be playing them. Not every performer on a hit song is a big name, and they might not see the same windfall that a star might. One can't assume they participate in the merchandise or touring income that is linked to commercial radio success. Not everyone who hears a song on terrestrial radio buys a ticket or a t-shirt. Some listeners just listen, thereby rewarding only the station and their advertisers, and not performers themselves.

All areas of the modern music business are currently feeling the shifting tides as new models emerge and old ones are broken up. Ours is a business that always begins with the brilliance of the artists. Contrary to long-held myths, it does take money to create new music. As the traditional revenue streams have dried up, most notably in the overall decline of record sales, it has placed stress on who continues to benefit from the old models. The future demands new partnerships and a rethinking of long-held practices about how artists should be compensated for their music. The hallmark of any great entertainment career is sustainability. Recognizing both the significance of the author and performer in the music making process helps to create those future opportunities.

In closing, and with all due respect to those that oppose the passage of the Performance Rights Act, to classify this measure as a "tax" is an interesting choice of words. For who has been taxed more than the artists themselves? Artists have paid their dues, so to speak, to establish terrestrial radio as a great and dynamic medium. We must consider that, for many artists, the difference between receiving these resources is the difference between a life in music and a life out of music. Few could deny that when a classic performance is captured, forever frozen as a musical snapshot in time, generation after generation returns to these moments, each finding something a little different. Whether we are talking about Motown, Stax, Elvis, or Howling Wolf, when the public decides that a specific performance is worthy of their attention, then it seems only fitting that this little bit of magic as documented be recognized in the form of direct compensation for the artists and organizations that helped to create it.

I thank you for your time.”

As for my own thoughts, honestly, I’m divided. Corgan does have a point. Why should the songwriters get compensation and not the performer? A lot of artists don’t perform material that they’ve penned, but does the success of those songs owe it all to the person who penned the tune and words? Not hardly, though a lion’s share of the credit is due. But vocal performance, instrumentation, enthusiasm, producing, mixing…all of these things add to the final product as well. So why shouldn’t they get compensation too?

Of course, there’s also the argument to be made that paying any royalties at all is perhaps unfair. After all, most any up-and-coming act would love to find their recordings get broadcast on the air. It is a form of advertisement. I can’t tell you the number of albums I’ve bought over the years based on songs I hear on the radio (sometimes to my immediate regret once I hear the rest). Radio gets music out there to the people; Corgan admitted that he discovered many great acts through the medium. So why should radio, which is doing a service to these acts by getting people to buy the singles and albums, have to pay the artists and songwriters for permission to give them publicity? If anything, the artists should pay them to air the material (payment based on time of day and number of listeners). Just ask Alan Freed.

But with music sales on the decline, artists are finding it’s harder than ever to make profits in the studio. Since they make such a huge percentage of their income on campaigns, sponsorships and tours, they ought to be compensated for the music they make that makes them popular in the first place. Should we really sneer at popular, wealthy artists complaining about not getting fair returns? Equality is a right that can’t be ignored even if some complain about not being able to add a pool to the mansion as opposed to paying next month’s rent or affording a day of studio time. Most of them work just as hard as the little guys.

And yet think about how radio programs may change. Soon, most of your favorite stations will be forced to cut their employee numbers in half to make up for the extra cost, fill the radio waves with even more of those annoying commercials, change formats to talk radio or go under entirely. Particularly vulnerable are the smaller stations (the ones that play good modern music). And in order to ensure that they get the largest audience possible, only the Top 40 drivel will get airplay, which helps precisely those who don’t need the extra income, while the struggling, up-and-coming artists can’t get played anywhere and lose out on reaching a wider audience.

The mouthpiece for this complaint would seem to tip the scales in favor of denial. Billy Corgan, despite being the frontman for one the 90s biggest and best bands, has usually come off as being a prickly, arrogant and self-centered fellow. There’s no denying his talents and artistry, but couldn’t they have found a better human representative? And how exactly does this service Corgan? He wrote nearly every song that Smashing Pumpkins ever performed; he’s already getting money for writing royalties, so does he just want more? I doubt he’s losing out on too many lobster dinners for not getting paid when they play his version of “Destination Unknown” or “Landslide.”

And this isn’t even the only time that Corgan has dealt with Congress in recent months. Only a few weeks ago, he wrote to several Washington insiders about the antitrust situation involving the merger between Ticketmaster and LiveNation, defending the move. And who is Corgan’s manager? Irving Azoff, the CEO of Ticketmaster. Stick with the music, Billy, because your efforts at lawmaking and Congressional policies are veiled as thinly as your moptop. It’s a complex situation but the cause deserves a better spokesperson. Maybe a talented artist left out of songwriting royalties that’s struggling to make ends meet? With Corgan, though, I have to favor free radio… for now.

Matt Medlock


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