Tuesday, July 14, 2009

IP and OLD technology meeting a changed culture

James asked for a post on the pending legislation that would require radio stations to compensate performers for playing their music on the air. So here goes.

The crux of the issue is this: when a radio station broadcasts a song, they have to pay royalties. But those royalties are due only to the composer of the song, not the performer. I'm not sure entirely why, other than that this arrangement dates back to the early 1920's when it was more common to identify a song by the composer than by the performer. Few composers would ever sing their own tunes and, for example, a Gershwin tune would remain a Gershwin tune regardless of who sang it. The notion of a "cover," have to acknowledge the fact that you're not the first to sing this song, would have generally been a redundancy.*

Well, times have changed and people care more about who sang the song than they do about who wrote it (if they're not the same person). A lot of folk won't recognize the names Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller, but they can't help but think of Elvis Presley if they hear "Hound Dog" (most won't know that he didn't sing the real lyrics, either). Does it make a difference to heavy metal fans whether "You've Got Another Thing Comin'" is performed by Judas Priest or Pat Boone? You better believe it. Performers have eclipsed composers in the public's mind when they think of musical creativity.

So, if radio stations have to pay the composers when they broadcast music, why shouldn't they have to pay performers, too? Indeed, why not? I can't think of any good reason at all.**

Of course, the broadcasters can think up one really good reason why they don't want to, and plenty of weaker reasons why they shouldn't. To my mind, almost none of them fly.

First off, let's dispense with the BS about royalty fees representing a "tax." Royalties aren't taxes; people just hate the word more. That's just faster-than-78-rpm spin.

Nor will it drive radio stations out of business, or force them all to become talk radio stations (surely that market is already saturated!). We've heard it all before, every time the minimum wage goes up or automobile fuel efficiency standards are raised. "Can't be done! We'll all go out of business!" Nonsense. Remember how you used to see McDonald's and Burger King on every street corner, until they raised the minimum wage in 1993? And now you just can't find a fast food res - yeah, right.

You have to try to pass the cost on to your customers, but so do all your competitors. Unless the customers stop patronizing all of you, they end up paying the cost and everything goes on as before. Unless advertisers desert radio altogether, they'll just have to make their contribution to paying those royalties.***

The broadcasters do have one true argument. It's not really a legal argument, but they simply point out how much musicians benefit from having their music on the radio. And indeed they do. The payola scandals of the 1950's prove it - it was considered cheating for a record label to pay the radio stations to play certain artists. This wouldn't make any sense if they thought of that broadcast as a rip-off, but is perfectly sensible if they viewed it as advertising that boosted their overall revenue. Follow the money, if you want to know what they really believe.

Here's my take. Demanding revenues for the performers is perfectly fair and justified. However, it might be short sighted, especially if the fees are too hefty. So let's do this: let's let someone muscular, like Clear Channel, refuse to broadcast any music unless the performers pay for the advertisement. The market can be the referee and we'll see who really had whom by the balls all along.

[PS. The ringtone post was already getting long, or I would have discussed the performance-as-advertising aspect of that case. There should certainly be some awareness that selling ringtones has increased the market for popular music, to the artists' advantage. They deserve their cut, but trying to milk it that hard just shows a certain lack of respect for how little they directly contributed to expanding their own market.]

[PPS. It occurs to me (soemtime later) that composers for theater still enjoy preeminence over the performers. For example, Andrew Lloyd Weber enjoys a tighter association with his music more than any singer ever will, not even Sarah Brightman. I presume this reflects the difference between a transitory stage performance vs. the "imperishable" recorded performance.]

* This may have much to do with the relative infancy of the recording business, too. In the age of live music, the performance was transitory and only the composition could have any permanence.

** In fact, internet radio - under more recent legislation - is already doing just that and would like to see the playing field leveled.

*** The broadcasters do point out that advertising receipts are down, but that can mean one of only two things: everything will be fine once the economy improves, or else radio is a failing industry anyway. Either way, special protections don't make long term sense.

1 comment:

James Hanley said...

Thanks. Too busy to think of any intelligent comment right now, though.