Photo: C Brandon
How The Recording Academy Advocates For Legislation That Could Help Generations Of Black Artists
Every year during Black History Month, the Recording Academy shines an extra bright light on the contributions and successes of Black artists, past and present. However, the work of Black artists should be championed year-round, and their contributions to popular culture honored through systemic change. As Black History Month comes to a close, the Recording Academy's Advocacy team looks ahead to pending legislation that would benefit Black artists in the long term.
Among such proposed legislation is the American Music Fairness Act (AMFA), which would close the century-long loophole that has enabled AM/FM radio to play music without paying a royalty for sound recordings. While radio has grown to become a multibillion-dollar business, not a single cent has gone to the legion of artists behind the mic, in the booth, or on guitar —many of whom are Black music makers— involved in the creation of the sound recording.
These artists — from the trailblazing jazz acts of the '20s and '30s, to '50s pioneers of rock and roll, to the countless Motown treasures — have defined American music and culture. Yet they do not receive compensation for their contributions. This injustice has hindered the success and longevity of generations of Black artists, musicians and studio professionals, as well as their heirs.
Radio royalty payments would be of particular necessity to Black artists, who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Americans for the Arts, 69 percent of BIPOC artists became unemployed as a result of the pandemic, losing 61 percent of their income. Comparatively, white artists had a 60 percent rate of unemployment and 56 percent loss of income.
The issue of rectifying nonexistent royalty payments has had broad support. Many leading Black artists have come to Washington, D.C., over the years to fight to end this injustice, including the late, great Mary Wilson of the Supremes. Last summer, Dionne Warwick and Sam Moore went to Capitol Hill to introduce the American Music Fairness Act, and major producer Boo Mitchell testified on the issue earlier in February in front of the House Judiciary Committee.
"This week is the 50th anniversary of Reverend Al Green's legendary Let's Stay Together album, which was produced and recorded and mixed here at Royal Studios by my father, the late Willie Mitchell," Mitchell said at the hearing, noting that the album's title track was a No. 1 hit and added to the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. "My father, who passed away in 2010 tragically, never received a penny from radio for his work. And shamefully, neither have the other great Memphis musicians and vocalists who created this work."
Mitchell continued, "Time is running out to fix this injustice for the artists of my dad's generation … These artists aren't looking for free promotion to sell records or to go on tour. They simply want to be compensated for their work."
Following the House Judiciary Committee hearing, children of deceased Black legacy recording artists wrote a letter in support of the American Music Fairness Act. This letter outlined the importance of closing the loophole that allows terrestrial radio to get away with not paying artists for their work, as well as the incorrect nature of the National Association of Broadcasters' (NAB) arguments against the passage of the AMFA.
"For us, to hear the NAB claim that passage of a bill that finally would compensate hundreds if not thousands of black artists would somehow put small minority owned radio stations that couldn't afford $500 a year out of business, thereby devastating low income communities where Black and Latino reside is intolerable," the letter stated.
The letter also argued in favor of the bill’s protections for small, local and community radio stations that earn less than $1.5 million annually. In the letter, the heirs even offered to cover a station’s "$10, $100 or $500 only annual fees" paid through the 501(c)(3) The Soul Arts And Music Foundation, founded by Sam Moore and his wife, Joyce.
If the American Music Fairness Act becomes law, these royalty payments would provide overdue funds to artists across the country and serve as one large step toward ending systemic inequities for artists of color. Ending these disparities is at the core of the Recording Academy's Advocacy efforts.
Similarly, the Help Independent Tracks Succeed (HITS) Act is another effort that will provide much-needed, immediate relief to independent artists while benefiting them in the long term.
The HITS Act would allow artists, musicians, producers, and studio technicians to deduct the entirety of their recording expenses, up to $150,000, on their taxes for the year incurred. The HITS act passed the House in 2021 as part of the Build Back Better Act and is currently being considered in the Senate.
"We have an opportunity where every other business has all these tax laws and things that have been passed," Kevin Liles, co-founder and CEO of 300 Entertainment, CEO of Elektra Music Group, and Recording Academy member, noted of the importance of the HITS Act during a panel discussion about Black-owned small businesses.
Liles continued, "If you think about the small artist, the small producer, the recording studio — if we give them a kind of a cap, $150,000 basis, they could write off 100 percent of the cost as an expense. That little thing alone could keep the light on. It could have somebody else get another piece of equipment."
The HITS Act is another proactive step Congress can take to help the music community recover from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And since the onset of COVID-19, the Recording Academy has mobilized its members to advocate for better protections and provisions for Black artists and Black-owned small businesses in the music ecosystem.
During the Academy's Summer of Advocacy in 2020, thousands of Recording Academy members successfully pushed Congress to provide targeted relief to minority-owned businesses by providing dedicated funding for underserved businesses so that they had direct access to the support and capital they deserved. The HITS Act would be another step towards recovery for Black artists and businesses, and reflects the Academy's advocacy efforts to provide economic relief and equity that encourage creative success in years to come.