THE BLOG
08/18/2015 12:45 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2016

Honoring Great Music Means Fair Pay For All Artists

guitario via Getty Images

In 1970, I was 11 years old -- and the music I loved was seared into me and laid the seeds for the artist I would ultimately become.

A few years ago, I recorded an album called the "Listening Booth: 1970" honoring many of those songs -- putting my own stamp on them as an adult and, I hoped, shining some new light on these giants of our musical past. Artists like John Lennon, Smokey Robinson and Van Morrison.

The record did OK and every so often a small royalty check comes in when digital radio stations play one of my tracks. I am grateful for it. Yet amazingly, I have only just learned that, even though I get paid when my new recordings are played, the artists who laid down the 1970 originals that inspired me in the first place get paid nothing when their own versions are played.

That is simply unfair and unjust. The digital radio companies hide behind their lawyers and say a quirk of federal law allows them to use those great old songs, and all songs recorded before Feb. 15, 1972, without paying. Right or wrong doesn't enter into it for them, I guess. Business is business. Oh, baby, it's a "Wild World" indeed.

State courts have been slowly fixing this problem -- reminding the radio folks that, even if they can twist federal law to use these iconic records without paying, state law also protects a musician's work -- and some digital radio companies are getting the message and considering settlement. And now a group of artists -- including giants like Elvis Costello, Martha Reeves and my friend Rosanne Cash, and unsung heroes like Miles Davis' drummer John DeJohnette -- have banded together to support a federal law that would fix the problem for good and for everyone: the Fair Play Fair Pay Act of 2015.

This bill would remedy other injustices in the radio business. Most people are shocked to learn that AM/FM radio doesn't pay singers or musicians anything for their performances. Radio earns billions selling ads to people who tune in for music, but pays nothing to the artists whose work they are exploiting. The Fair Play Fair Pay Act would fix that -- so that not only spotlight performers, but also session musicians and backup singers all get their share.

It would undo some of the back room deals and special giveaways that Congress has doled out over the decades to AM/FM and satellite radio -- hitting "reset" on the radio business so that all different radio technologies play by the same rules. And it would shelter college radio and small town radio and public radio -- keeping royalties low for stations that aren't in it for the money anyway.

I love radio. Without it, I never would have heard those songs back when I was a kid, and I wouldn't hear a lot of great music today. But at the end of the day, it's a business like any other. And music is one of its biggest products.

No other business in America has a government-granted right to take someone else's property and use it to make millions, without compensating the original creator at all. The way I see it, the Fair Play Fair Pay Act won't hurt radio, it will make radio a better partner to the artists that it depends on every day.

When I recorded "Listening Booth: 1970," I knew I was paying tribute to my heroes. But I also hoped that any new attention paid to their original performances would in some small way economically benefit them as well. It's been a pretty rude awakening to learn the truth.

That's why I am speaking out, to keep faith with the greats whose work shaped me into the artist I am today. To change the rules to protect artists who recorded before 1972. And to fight for Fair Play Fair Pay for everyone who works in music.