B ecause I couldn't be bothered to pay attention in school, pretty much everything I know about the way Washington, D.C., works comes from Joan Didion's essay "Insider Baseball," a few key numbers from Schoolhouse Rock, and seasons one through four of The West Wing. Which is the same thing as saying I don't know anything about the way Washington, D.C., works.
But raging ignorance and deep ambivalence didn't stop me from doing a day's lobbying work last week, in actual Senate and House office buildings, concerning an actual bill that's actually before the first session of the actual 111th Congress and that actually affects me and most musicians I know. And of course, by "affects me" I mean "promises to earn me more money." The lobbying organization musicFIRST (Fairness in Radio Starting Today), which is funded by the Recording Industry Association of America, among other organizations not necessarily associated with what you might call grassroots activism, paid for me and more than 100 fellow musicians—including Sam Moore (of Sam & Dave), Suzanne Vega, Cynthia Johnson (best known as the singer of "Funkytown"), and at least one of the Four Tops (Abdul "Duke" Fakir)—to travel to Washington. They put us up in reasonably nice hotel rooms, briefed us, furnished us with just-in-case talking points, and guided us to our meetings with the relevant aides to the relevant senators and representatives. In my group's case, that meant stopping by the offices of Democratic senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, Democratic representative Jay Inslee, and Republican representative Dean Heller of Nevada.
Some things I learned: House offices are noticeably shabbier than Senate ones, congressional staffers are genial and have the talent of at least seeming interested in what everyone says, the underground tunnels that connect all the House and Senate office buildings make you feel simultaneously like a big shot and a rodent, and, most surprisingly, anyone who can fit through a metal detector can just walk into the office of any member of Congress any old time. And even though I had an appointment and was accompanied by a pro lobbyist, that's how it felt: like any old American with a complaint walking through the doors.
Senate Bill 379, also known as House Resolution 848, subtitled "To provide fair compensation to artists for use of their sound recordings," would require terrestrial radio stations to pay license fees, also known as royalties, to bands and solo acts that perform the songs on radio playlists. Currently, stations pay such fees only to the songwriters. Our position is that this arrangement isn't fair—"fairness" is a theme that emerges a lot in this discussion—because music on the radio is valuable as a commodity on account of the singer and the song. If you don't agree, I would ask you to consider the Garfunkel Principle, a phrase minted by Senator Murray's aide Andrew Rowe, who was sitting on a leather sofa in Senator Murray's blue-carpeted outer office.
I explained to Rowe that when "Bridge Over Troubled Water" comes on the radio, as it invariably does somewhere every day, does it sound the way it does because of the chord changes, melody, and words written by Paul Simon or because of the lead vocal performance of Art Garfunkel? It's safe to say that both are factors. Yet only Simon receives compensation when "Bridge" gets spun on the radio. You might be thinking, Who cares whether a couple of already-rich rock stars get an extra nickel when their song is played? And I'm not saying you're wrong. But when you say that, you're tacitly saying that (to pull a name out of the air, so to speak) Clear Channel—which programs "Bridge" because people know it and presumably like it, and Clear Channel can sell advertising time based on the premise that the kind of person who likes that kind of song will likely buy whatever product is being advertised—deserves that nickel more than Art Garfunkel. I don't see how anyone who isn't employed by Clear Channel could possibly believe that.
Not convinced? I recommend spending a few minutes sitting next to Mr. Sam Moore, as I did, in the chamber of the House Judiciary Committee. The man who sang but did not write "Soul Man," "Hold On, I'm Comin'," and other indelible radio fixtures, will, I promise, break it down. Moore thanked me for coming and told me that success was inevitable. "It's time," he said. "It gotta take time. But it's time." I added, gamely, that I agreed, because "the other side has no ethical or moral argument, no argument at all other than 'we want all the money'"—something I'd said in all my meetings. Sam Moore looked down imposingly at me over the top of his gold sunglasses and yelled, "Don't tell me!" Then he laughed, and so did Duke Fakir, the Fourth Top, who was standing next to us in an impossibly sharp suit.
The opposing viewpoint is that suddenly having to pay money for something it has always gotten for free would be bad for the radio industry's bottom line, which would be bad for America. Smaller stations, the radio lobby argues, would be put out of business instantly, while bigger stations would be hit hard enough to be threatened with extinction. I'm not going to get into my whole feeling about the death of the music industry as we have always known it not being such a terrible tragedy. But the bill is written with a great deal of wiggle room for establishing an equitable arrangement with the radio industry, which has, until now, refused to negotiate. The current provision states that stations with less than $1.25 million in annual revenue would pay a flat fee of $5,000 per year to a performance-rights collection agency, while public/nonprofit broadcasters would pay $1,000. Religious stations would be (frustratingly) exempt. Bigger commercial outlets—less than 25 percent of the stations on the dial—would pay a fee roughly equivalent to the one they pay to the songwriter-money-collecting organizations BMI and ASCAP each year. Lobbyists say that adding this expense to the already ad-starved operating budgets will lead to further consolidation, will put stations under, will, in effect, kill the radio star deader than it already is. Doubtful, but maybe. Still, does that mean radio companies should be allowed to get for free what everyone else has to pay for? Right now, the U.S. is the only economically developed nation on earth that doesn't pay these fees. A few other nonpayers: China, Iran, and North Korea. That's a party.
So we offered our most cogent thoughts and were heard. But I left not knowing whether the senators and representatives would vote for the bill or when the bill would be voted on, and with no clear sense of what Byzantine fistulas and conduits of political process the bill would have to squeeze through before getting a chance to become law. This had to be intentional—not because anyone's intentions were nefarious, but because, as Representative Inslee's aide Megan Eidman pointed out, even small radio stations carry political ads during election years, and members of Congress have to be careful not to alienate anyone until they absolutely have to. The genial, shrewd staffers we met seemed interested in the issue, but were they listening or just acting like they were listening? Was this activism or performance? I wondered about this as we were thanked for our time and ushered out into the stinging-cold sunshine.
Walking around where 1.8 million people had gathered only weeks before (in even colder weather) to see President Obama's inauguration, you could still see the flattened earth, the stacked barricades, the sense of a crowd only recently dispersed. The memory of the campaign, along with the infinity of Obama-related paraphernalia on sale at every liquor store, newsstand, and kebab shop on the Mall, made it all the more poignant to be walking through the literal corridors of power with belonging and purpose, talking to lawmakers' advisers about something I believe in and care about—it wasn't exactly campaigning to end the genocide in Darfur, but there was joy in feeling involved, even if the feeling turns out to have been an illusion.
After the meetings were done, I took a cab to the Lincoln Memorial, my headphones full of songs by artists who would stand to gain from the work our little special-interest group had done. But as I climbed the white steps, I turned the music off, obviously. As it always does, the sculpture, and the words on the walls around it, just about knocked me over. In the cab back to the hotel, the driver was listening to talk-radio drone about Rush Limbaugh and the crisis in Republican leadership. Business as usual, then.
Stranger Associate Editor Emeritus Sean Nelson is the singer for the band Harvey Danger, among other things.