Arguments about copyright law don’t get much more life-affirming than this. Earlier this week, David Byrne announced in his email newsletter that he’d be performing Biz Markie’s enduring, endearing novelty hit “Just a Friend” in an event at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge on February 25. And that’s exactly what he did at the rally for the Content Creators Coalition, a new advocacy group. And, as you can see from the fan video above, it was oddly sublime, an overalls-wearing Byrne reading the 1989 song’s rap verses from a sheet, replacing Markie’s affectingly plainspoken warble with his own tremulous sing-speak.
The Talking Heads leader’s jubilant cover came at a show called Artists’ Pay for Radio Play, where the Content Creators Coalition was calling attention to the fact that the United States is a rare place where performers don’t get royalties for radio airplay. “Mr. Markie didn’t write that tune (although he did probably write the rap),” Byrne wrote in the February 24 email newsletter. “The drum and keyboard loop was lifted from a Freddie Scott recording, but the song was written by Gamble and Huff, the great songwriting team that wrote for The O’Jays and The Spinners. So chances are Biz Markie didn’t see any royalties from all the radio play that song got.”
The Content Creators Coalition’s concerns are ultimately far broader than radio royalties. Byrne, for instance, has been vocal about how the trend toward online streaming could make it harder for non-mainstream artists to make a career. Joining Byrne last night were R.E.M’s Mike Mills, Cake’s John McCrea, and guitar master Marc Ribot, plus Chris Ruen, author of Freeloading. But they’ve begun by urging Congress to review the current radio airplay royalty system, and you can sign their petition here.
A separate group, I Respect Music, has launched a similar campaign, and the name is no coincidence: Although Aretha Franklin performs the best-known version of “Respect,” the airplay royalties go to the original songwriter, whose idea of “Respect” was very different: Otis Redding. All that they’re asking is that you give Aretha her profits when she gets home. Don’t make her spell it out; she’ll do it, you know.