NAACP calls Pandora-backed legislation unfair

In a letter to Congress, the civil rights group asks that lawmakers vote no on legislation designed to cut the rates paid by Pandora and other Webcasters to artists -- some of whom are elderly Motown performers who weren't compensated fairly for their original work.

The Apollo Theater in New York's Harlem district is a longtime showcase for black music artists, including James Brown and Marvin Gaye. Greg Sandoval/CNET

Pandora Media is facing a new and politically powerful opponent in its quest to see a bill passed in Congress that cuts the royalty rates Webcasters pay artists and labels.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has come out strongly against the legislation known as the Internet Radio Fairness Act, a bill that is heavily backed by Pandora.

In a letter to members of the House subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet, the NAACP said if the legislation was made law it "would unfairly deprive artists and performers of fair pay for their hard work." The letter was written by Hilary O. Shelton, director of the NAACP's Washington bureau and senior vice president for advocacy and policy.

"This would start a race to the bottom in performer's compensation, violating the founding principle of America's labor movement," Shelton wrote. "A fair day's work deserves a fair day's pay...

"Many of the performers who would be affected by this lower compensation rate," Shelton continued, "are the now elderly singers and musicians from the Motown era who received little pay for their original work and are dependent on this modest performance royalty that would be eviscerated under IFRA."

A Pandora representative wasn't immediately available for comment. But the company has said in the past that Web radio services pay too much in royalties when compared to terrestrial and satellite broadcasters. Pandora's managers want a fee that is more in line with what Sirius XM, pays.

The music industry wants the fees for Sirius to go the other way and be in line with the fees charged to Pandora and other Internet radio companies.

As for how the Webcasting rates may affect black artists, I've wondered for years why the NAACP wasn't more vocal about Internet file sharing and artists rights, speaking up for one side or the other . One of the skeletons in the music industry's closet is how black musicians were treated during the last century. The stories of black artists getting shafted out of royalties are legion in the music industry.

One of the best reports I've seen on this is "In The Jungle," the 2001 Rolling Stone piece from writer Rian Malan who wrote about Solomon Linda, the African who penned the music that became "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." The song made millions for others while he died penniless.

Of Linda's song, Milan wrote:

Its epic transcultural saga is also, in a way, the story of popular music, which limped, pale-skinned and anemic, into the 20th century but danced out the other side vastly invigorated by transfusions of ragtime and rap, jazz, blues and soul, all of whose bloodlines run back to Africa via slave ships and plantations and ghettos. It was in the nature of this transaction that black men gave more than they got and often ended up with nothing.

 

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