Martha Reeves
(Martha Reeves photo courtesy of the musicFIRST Coalition)

Rhythm and blues music often inspires both strong emotions and brave actions.

“Dancing in the Street,” my biggest success of the 1960s, was used to promote freedom and equality by Berry Gordy and Dr. Martin Luther King. Berry, as a fellow artist at Motown Recording Company, knew that Marvin Gaye, Ivy Hunter and William Stevenson had written a song with happiness and sheer delight, encouraging people to dance in the street with no fear of danger or inhibition. It soon became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement.

We recorded with world-class musicians “The Funk Brothers” in a style now declared our own folklore by the Library of Congress. Our performance of “Dancing in the Street” put Dr. King’s calls for equality and justice into song.

So it’s ironic that musicians themselves – including those that performed “Dancing in the Street” – have silently suffered a decades-long economic injustice: that terrestrial AM/FM radio stations don’t pay them a penny to use their music. It goes against the most basic principle of labor: a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work. “Big Radio” has always resisted paying performers, arguing that we receive the benefit of promotion. But radio today mostly plays the same top 40 “hits” again and again, and still when they give “Dancing in the Street” airtime, I, one of the artists who created the recording, don’t see a dime.

In 2009, I personally visited Congressman John Conyers on two occasions to speak with him about artists’ rights to be paid for airplay. The next year, the Senate and House Judiciary Committees voted in favor of the Performance Rights Act, legislation that would have recognized a full performance right on all radio platforms – including AM/FM – and ensured that digital broadcasters all pay the same rates.

Although the full Congress never passed the bill into law, radio industry executives seemed to agree it was time for a change. The CEO of Clear Channel, the largest AM/FM broadcaster, shocked the industry by agreeing that “promotion…is not enough,” and that artists deserve to be paid for their work. And Pandora co-founder Tim Westergren testified before Congress that the current law is “unfair to performing artists.”

Now, Pandora itself could unravel this progress by pushing legislation that would slash the rates they pay to performers by 85 percent. This same legislation failed in the last Congress, but Pandora wants to tryagain, this time offering performers a larger share of the reduced royalties. But a larger share of leftovers would leave us with crumbs; even the most generous version of Pandora’s offer would cut performers’ pay by 70 percent.

Tim Westergren argues that current performance royalty law is “hampering innovation.” Don’t get me wrong, I think Pandora and other digital music services are playing a vital role in transforming radio. As I understand it, there are thousands of services out there. But what about the musical innovators that make Pandora worth listening to? Should they take a massive pay cut so software developers can innovate?

After all, artists and musicians invest a lifetime in their craft and take risks bigger than any tech start-up, with little hope to benefit from the profits generated by these companies. I was trained in opera by Abraham Silver at Northeastern High School after learning to sing in my grandfather’s church. William Stevenson, A&R Director for Motown’s “Hitsville USA” studios discovered me as Martha LaVaille, singing solo after the Del-Phis recording of one singer went unnoticed for Check Mate Records. Arriving early one January morning (not a day for auditions), I insisted and assumed secretarial duties and assisted in the A&R department.

Six months later, I contacted former group members and signed a contract for one-third of 1 percent — a standard rate in the sixties. The government had not regulated or determined fair royalty rates or made air play pay mandatory.

We’ve come a long way and we still have a ways to go, but I’m sure we’ll see the Promised Land for performers. Perhaps Congress will pass a version of the “Interim FIRST Act,” draft legislation circulated last year that would require AM/FM radio to pay higher digital royalties and establish the same market rate standard for all digital radio services. Or perhaps Congress will end the injustice once and for all by passing the Performance Rights Act.

Musicians should be paid a fair value for their work and all digital services should play by the same rules. These are just common sense ideas, and once Congress adopts them as law, future generations will wonder why we ever struggled over them. But that’s why we must keep struggling – until justice is done.

Martha Reeves was the lead singer of the Motown girl group Martha and the Vandellas. Follow her on Twitter at @MARTHAREEVESvan