Radio airplay is “a form of piracy”

by Mathew on June 24, 2008 · 10 comments

“If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street;
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat;
If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat;
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.
‘Cause I’m the taxman;
yeah, I’m the taxman.”

The Beatles, Taxman

We’ve seen the recording industry pull a lot of bizarre stunts in the past few years. And I don’t mean just suing 12-year-old girls for downloading music, but things like suing auto-repair shops for playing the radio too loud (at which point the music apparently becomes a “public performance”), or filing “cease and desist” letters because a tiny portion of a song appeared in the background of a home video on YouTube (okay, that was just Prince, but still). But now, the industry appears to be arguing that the entire radio industry is effectively based on piracy — and no, I am not making this up. I wish I was.

“It’s a form of piracy, if you will, but not in the classic sense as we think of it,” said Martin Machowsky, a musicFirst spokesman.

The argument (if I can call it that) according to musicFirst is that the radio business has pretty much gotten a free ride since the legislation legalizing it was adopted in the 1960s, because it doesn’t have to pay musicians for the right to play their music — around which the radio stations sell advertising, etc. — the way that public venues such as bars and department stores do (radio stations compensate publishers and songwriters, but not artists). The industry is arguing before the U.S. Congress that this historical injustice should be avenged by slapping the radio business with what amounts to a performance-based tax, which it prefers — for obvious reasons — to call a fee.

As Mike Masnick notes at Techdirt, the argument that the radio business has been somehow getting away with murder by playing music for nothing cleverly avoids dealing with the concept of “payola” or “pay to play,” which was systemic in the early days of radio and allegedly still occurs even now. If radio play wasn’t worth anything in terms of driving demand for recorded music or live music, then why would producers and record companies be so eager to pay disc jockeys to play their artists?

It’s possible that the record industry’s argument — albeit unstated — is that radio is no longer any good for driving demand for recorded music or live music (which is absurd, but let’s play along) and therefore broadcasters should have to pay because they are getting something for nothing. But whose fault is that? If the record industry can’t find a way to turn a profit from the kind of free promotion that radio airplay provides, that’s hardly the fault of broadcasters.

  • http://www.consumerpassion.com Jeff Crites

    I have more than a dozen years in the radio industry, and you're spot on. Yes, things have radically changed, especially in terms of how consumers 'discover' new music and artists. In decades past, radio was THE place you heard a new song, as stations were given new releases IN ADVANCE of them hitting store shelves.

    DJs would play that cool new song and build excitement for weeks until it could finally be purchased. The music industry and the radio industry had a mutually beneficial relationship, but both are now reeling from the advance of the digital age, expansion of choice, empowerment of consumers, etc … and both are lashing out at anything and everything that threatens their once dominant business models. (I worked with XM at its launch in 2001, and the Nat'l Assoc of Broadcasters spent all of its time screaming and crying in an attempt to cripple the advance of satellite radio).

    I won't go into illegal file sharing and downloads except to say I purchase all of my music. I just don't purchase as much as I used to due to lack of quality.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks for the comment, Jeff. I think you are definitely right about
    the “lashing out at anything and everything” part. The industry's
    ability to shoot itself in the foot — not to mention plenty of other
    body parts — while allegedly trying to protect itself is truly
    amazing.

  • http://www.davidrdgratton.com Ddonat

    As far as I know the US is an exception to most of the free world where radio does pay royalties to not only the writer but the performer as well.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I'm pretty sure you are right, David — and I think either you or
    someone else who commented the last time I wrote about this topic
    mentioned the same thing. I suppose that adds to the music industry's
    argument that the U.S. shouldn't be able to get away with this free
    ride the radio industry gets, but I still think that argument is more
    a sign of desperation than anything else.

  • http://www.greatapps.blogspot.com John Wilson

    You may think the notion that radio should pay for playing music is crazy, but as mentioned above the US is perhaps the exception. It's been established practice in the UK for many years that radio pays for playing the music, regardless of the benefits the artist enjoys from having their product played to a large audience.

    Clearly both sides benefit from the arrangement of music being played on radio [fills airtime with content that listeners want and musicians get their product publicised]- what is at issue is who should be paying who and in what proportion to the overall benefits received.

  • Big ears

    I've always thought that broadcasting a work over a public resource like the radio bands should be considered an implicit statement that one has released the work from control and constraint. You can't shout something from the mountaintop, and then insist people keep it a secret. If I can observe something from my home, and I didn't ask to, then by crikey, I consider the observation to be entierly mine to do with as I choose. How is it that copyright can make that sort of pragmatic position sound so crazy? It even sounds crazy to me.

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  • BrianZ

    I'm not a radio listener anymore and haven't been since 2000. Because I don't like the fact that the Radio Industry tells the general public what music is cool.

    With the change, radio could become more of a national music barometer instead of record label PR teams and industry suits. Also, if you are in NY and you listen to a rock station and then go to L.A and listen to a rock station., you will hear the same music. But now, you could have NY stations playing different things because of the type of music they (NY Stations) value as opposed to LA stations. That might be interesting. It could also make the recording industry accountable for some of the garbage they hype, because the radio stations will say, “What is that crap? I'm not paying for that!” It could be that this change may fix the “Soulja Boy” problem with current radio.

    Again, it all goes back to the recording industry shooting themselves in the foot. By charging radio, they lose control of deciding what is hot and what is not. It may not be something they foresee, but it might happen.

  • BrianZ

    I'm not a radio listener anymore and haven't been since 2000. Because I don't like the fact that the Radio Industry tells the general public what music is cool.

    With the change, radio could become more of a national music barometer instead of record label PR teams and industry suits. Also, if you are in NY and you listen to a rock station and then go to L.A and listen to a rock station., you will hear the same music. But now, you could have NY stations playing different things because of the type of music they (NY Stations) value as opposed to LA stations. That might be interesting. It could also make the recording industry accountable for some of the garbage they hype, because the radio stations will say, “What is that crap? I'm not paying for that!” It could be that this change may fix the “Soulja Boy” problem with current radio.

    Again, it all goes back to the recording industry shooting themselves in the foot. By charging radio, they lose control of deciding what is hot and what is not. It may not be something they foresee, but it might happen.

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