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Photo: ECR Music Group

It takes 380,000 streams a month for an artist to make minimum wage on Spotify. #IRespectMusic founder Blake Morgan is campaigning Congress to get performers paid fairly

You never hear about middle-class rock stars.

That’s the message that musical renaissance man Blake Morgan—singer-songwriter, producer, record-label owner, darling of ’90s alt-rock and now arts activist—has been sending to Congress, as well as radio and streaming goliaths and audiences across the country.

That is: Music-makers are not only starry-eyed kids banging away in their parents’ garage or superstars filling up arenas, they are also the middle class. And they have bills to pay.

Morgan, a self-described middle-class musicmaker, recalls a private meeting he had with a congressman on Capitol Hill in 2016. After expressing that the majority of musicians are muddling through a middle-class living just like a large swath of Americans, Morgan says the congressman sat up in his chair with a look of revelation: “You have a mortgage,” the politician said.

The congressman explained that music reform groups often bring big-name artists to Capitol Hill to dazzle lawmakers, not musicians from the middle.

“Very much to his credit, he said, ‘Blake, forgive me for how naive that sounds, but we don’t hear that up here. Everyday we trumpet the middle class, the Great American Class, and this is who we’re supposed to be fighting for and here you sit.”

Enter #IRespectMusic, a grassroots movement that is helping shape legislation and potentially overhauling the way music-makers are compensated for terrestrial and digital radio airplay, as well as online streaming.

Unlike most democratic countries, in the U.S., performers are not awarded royalties when their music is played on the radio, be it AM/FM radio or digital. Songwriters get royalties, performers do not. And streaming services like Spotify only throw performers scraps. As many music rights advocates point out, it takes about 380,000 streams a month for a solo artist to make minimum wage on Spotify (about $1,260 a month). Music rights advocates have been working with Congress to improve how artists are paid, and this spring, they’ve made some significant headway, with #IRespectMusic at the forefront.

Blake Morgan wants performers and songwriters to be paid fairly for radio plays. ECR Music Group

“#IRespectMusic is fighting for all music players to be paid fairly for their work,” says Morgan of the movement he kickstarted from his laptop in 2014. It all began after a “scrap” that went viral with Pandora Internet Radio exec Tim Westergren in 2013 about streaming royalties for performers.

“Most people don’t know that the U.S. is the only democratic country in the world where artists don’t get paid for radio airplay.”

“At the heart of everyone’s concerns lies a common understanding that the royalty payments from radio, whether terrestrial (AM/FM), satellite or Internet, are uneven and unfair,” wrote Morgan at the time (read Morgan’s entire HuffPo Op-Ed, “Pandora needs to do right by artists,” here).

Soon after, he started IRespectMusic.org, where people can sign a petition to “tell Congress to Support Artists’ Pay for Radio Play.” Support for #IRespectMusic has spread rapidly since 2014, and its demographic runs the rainbow, from university students at Cal State Chico, who rallied in February holding the campaign’s signs, to Aerosmith’s Joe Perry. Many other musicians and arts advocates have saluted their support on social media including Kill Rockstars record label president Portia Sabin, Jean-Michel Jarre, Marisa Tomei, Patrick Stewart, Lily Tomlin, Tracy Bonham, Gloria Steinem and entertainment lawyer Dina LaPolt. Music producer Timbaland tweeted the hashtag April 26 with the passing of the Music Modernization Act. (More on that in a minute.)

“Most people don’t know that the U.S. is the only democratic country in the world where artists don’t get paid for radio airplay,” Morgan says. “It’s completely crazy.” In this practice, the United States is only in the company of Iran, North Korea, China, Vietnam and Rwanda, he says.

As an example, he cites “Respect,” a song penned by Otis Redding, but made internationally famous by Aretha Franklin. It became her signature song.

“Aretha Franklin has never been paid for that song being on American radio,” Morgan says. “The reason is because she didn’t write the song; Otis Redding wrote the song. So Otis Redding gets paid, as he should—and not as much as he should—and Aretha doesn’t get paid at all.”

Becoming a U.S. citizen meant giving up a third of her income for Finnish musician Janita. ECR Music Group

This came as something of a shock to Janita, a critically acclaimed Brooklyn-based alt-pop artist who hails from Finland. Janita, now on Morgan’s ECR Music Group label, relocated to the U.S. when she was 17.

“I started my career so young, I got used to being paid when my music was on the radio,” Janita recalls of working as a musician in Finland. “A third of my income came from being on the radio. Artists in the States don’t know what they’re missing.”

Janita has joined the #IRespectMusic fight. In fact, in 2014, her story was presented to Congress.

“They perked up, because I became an American citizen in 2013, and becoming a U.S. citizen would rob me of my radio royalties,” she says. “It’s a real deterrent for an artist to become a U.S. citizen, losing, for example, one-third of their income just because they decided to be a U.S. citizen. That was something that was shocking to them, and so my story got read into the permanent congressional record by Rep. Judy Chu of California.”

“That was pretty fucking cool,” Janita adds, laughing. “The only thing is that we’re still fighting for this. There are powerful powers that be that don’t want this to happen because they would have to pay. But you know, #IRespectMusic is about all areas in which artists are not being treated fairly.”

“It’s become a battle cry for artists to be paid fairly by streaming services, or copyright infringement, or piracy. These all sort of overlap each other,” Morgan adds. “And you have this corporate oligarch mentality that constantly wants to profit at the expense of creative people and artistic people.”

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In the years since Morgan launched #IRespectMusic, he has gone tête-à-tête with Spotify (read his since-removed HuffPo Op-ED, “Spotify’s Fatal Flaw Exposed: How My Closed-Door Meeting with Execs Ended in a Shouting Match,” here), petitioned the National Association of Broadcasters, the main lobbying arm of U.S. AM/FM radio, and pleaded to Congress on behalf of music-makers.

In 2015, the Fair Play Fair Pay Act—a bill requiring broadcasters to pay artists and record labels when their songs are played on the radio—was introduced by Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York into Congress and reintroduced in 2017 (H.R.1836).

“Its introduction was a huge shot in the arm for those of us who have been fighting to resolve this,” Morgan says. Of Nadler, who happens to be Morgan’s representative, he says, “If there is a greater champion on the hill for music-makers’ rights, I have not met her, I have not met him. “

All of these efforts have come to a complicated head this spring. In April, Rep. Bob Goodlatte introduced the enormous Music Modernization Act, a complex omnibus bill that would essentially streamline how artists are paid via digital platforms. The Act includes major parts of the Fair Play Fair Pay Act, but is missing a key component: royalties for terrestrial radio airplay. The House passed the MMA unanimously with bipartisan support April 25. It will be heard by the Senate May 15.

“It’s probably the first really comprehensive copyright overhaul bill that would affect the daily lives of music-makers, really, in about 20 years,” Morgan says.

Morgan lists what he sees as the bill’s positives: the Classics Acts, which would close a loophole exempting royalties for music made pre-1972; the AMP Act (or Allocation for Music Producers Act), which would add music producers and engineers under U.S. copyright law; and the Songwriter Equity Act, which would amend the Copyright act to update royalty payments for songwriters in the digital age.

But, the omission of radio royalties is a bitter pill to swallow for many.

“Even the bill’s strongest supporters admit that there are some serious problems with the bill,” Morgan says. “I abhor purity tests and I admire compromise. There is a lot of compromise that has gone into this bill. There are huge parts of it that I truly celebrate.” However, he says, “It’s going to have to get better for me to be full-throated in my support of the bill.”

Add to the mix that, under pressure from advocacy groups and Congress, the National Association of Broadcasters has come to the negotiating table for the first time in decades with MusicFIRST—a musician advocacy group—to discuss royalties for radio airplay. So while the Fair Play Fair Pay act is still in play in the House, it’s on pause while negotiations take place.

“The Music Modernization Act is really the bill of the moment,” says Morgan, adding that it’s now or never for major reforms, as key players, such as Rep. Goodlatte, retire this year.

“There is a sense that this needs to happen in 2018, or it’s not going to happen at all,” Morgan  says.

Regardless of what happens in Congress, the decentralized #IRespectMusic movement—there’s no headquarters, merely independent citizens who support the cause—has been unleashed, and advocates around the country will continue to push for improvements in the working lives of music-makers.

“It’s grown to become the largest grassroots movement in the history of American music,” Morgan says.

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