The biggest hope for the future of music is facing a firing squad, thanks to a governmental group you've probably never heard of. And unless you - yes, you - are willing to do something about it, everything you're likely to hear is going to sound less and less like anything you'd ever want to listen to.
If you happened to catch the Grammys, you might have heard T-Bone Burnett's coy reference to the situation as he picked up award after award for the "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack. The album became one of the hottest sellers in America despite the fact that it got no radio play. Music fans love it. Critics love it. Even the industry loves it. But old-time country and down-home blues don't fit the listening format endorsed by the corporations that decide what gets played on the radio. You see, fans, critics, and DJs don't decide what we listen to any more. Corporations do, and they don't like risks. And the music people love, rather than just tolerate in the background, is built on the risky business of individual appeal, rather than mass acceptance.
As an album, "O, Brother, Where Art Thou?" lucked out - it had a major movie as a vehicle to reach potential listeners. But other equally worthy projects, from freestyle hip-hop to DIY death metal to angelic indie pop, have to hitch a ride however they can. Some wind up roadkill.
But some find their way onto the greatest distribution system in history: the internet. Over the past decade, music lovers have turned to the world wide web to fill the gulf left by lowest-common-denominator radio playlists. There was Napster, of course, where fans could trade (supposedly) CD-quality song files for free. And then there was internet radio.
Unlike file-sharing systems (and Napster left behind plenty of competitors), internet radio stations aren't based on swapping pirated copies of songs. They're about listening to music as it's broadcast, played by fans for anyone who cares to tune in. Unlike land-based radio, the audience is global. While a weekly Captain Beefheart Fan Club Hour might net a West Palm Beach radio station a grand total of five guaranteed listeners, the same show sent out over the web could attract a faithful following of thousands, from Boynton to Berlin. That's how the web works - if you get passionate over something off the beaten path, you just do a simple search, and suddenly you're not alone anymore.
Here's one illustration of the power of internet radio: think of your favorite song from your sixth grade end-of-the-year dance (it's probably embarrassing, but for the sake of the experiment, allow yourself to wallow in nostalgia for a minute). Go to google.com (or any search engine), type in the song title and the word "playlist," then hit enter.
Chances are, you're now looking at a page full of internet radio stations who have played that very song. A couple of them probably also played your second favorite sixth grade song, which you totally forgot even existed. (It may be just as embarrassing. Wallow.) Even on a slow connection, this took you less than 20 seconds. Now, try to remember the last time you heard either of those songs on the radio.
Unfortunately, two powerful organizations don't really care about the songs you forgot you loved.
Recently, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) petitioned the Library of Congress to start charging fees to internet radio providers. People who put music on the internet - whether it's pirated onto hard drives or just played as a non-downloadable stream - should pay for the privilege.
In principle, the webcasting community agreed with the RIAA. No one wants to deprive musicians, or even record execs, of their rightful earnings. But then the two sides fell into bickering over rates. So the Library of Congress appointed CARP, the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel, to look into the problem.
Both the RIAA and the webcasters had requested a percentage of revenues, a system that's fair and that guarantees those fans of the obscure and forgotten (like your second-favorite sixth grade song) wouldn't have to mortgage the farm just to keep their music alive.
But what CARP recommended - and what was ultimately rejected, - was flat fee for every song played. Their rates stacked up to over 300 percent of most webcasters' income from advertising. Add to that the cost of tracking the identity of every listener to every song played. Add to that the cost for maintaining the website. And then add to that a retroactive charge, forcing webcasters to cough up money for every song played to every listener over the last five years.
Originally, the RIAA wanted 15 percent of whatever the webcaster earned through advertising. CARP would have delivered over 100 times more than that. Two college kids playing indie pop from their dorm PC to an average audience of 1,000 listeners for the past three years would have been charged a staggering $525,600.
If the same system were put in place for your average corporate rock radio station, the royalty bill would come to a staggering $3.3 billion per year. Of course no one's suggesting that. When the first radio broadcasts hit the airwaves, the government structured laws to help support the revolutionary new technology. But it doesn't look like they'll be extending the same courtesy to the newest revolution. And here's where you come in.
CARP doesn't make the laws - your senators do. Senators read their mail. They're your senators. You elect them. You can write to them. It's not hard. It's actually kind of fun. And, if you care about music, it's important. The next big date in this saga is June 20th, when The Copyright Office will make revised recommendations over the levels and means through which payment of copyright holders by internet broadcasters is assessed. At the bottom of this article there is a link that will help you find your congressperson. Remember, be polite and tell them exactly why you think internet radio needs to be saved.
You might just be saving the future of music.
Save Internet Radio has an easy-to-follow form and you can
contact your local congressperson.
The details of the battle between the recording industry and the webcasting community are available online.
One of all-too-few editorials on the subject was published in the
The Mercury News.
The full CARP report is also available online.
And if you'd like to listen to some of Florida's local internet radio, tune into
www.thehoneycomb.com and just follow the links.
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