Radio silence

>> Saturday, February 14, 2009

The primary way I discover new music is via internet radio. I listen to internet radio, I hear something I like, I add it to my Amazon wishlist, eventually I buy it. Sometimes I discover something awesome like The Damnwells or Iron And Wine or Jenny Lewis, and sometimes, frankly, I'm a little disappointed. But this is how I get my new acts, how my music-devouring shark stays in motion so it doesn't drown on things I've been listening to for twenty or thirty years. (Not that there's anything wrong with those old friends--it's just a matter of staying in motion and being aware, and not stagnating, y'know?)

What you may or may not know is that internet radio is in a helluva lot of trouble right now. SoundExchange, which represents most of the major labels, has asked the Copyright Royalties Board (which sets standard royalty rates; the CRB is part of the Library Of Congress, which registers copyrights in the United States among its other functions) to set an extremely high royalty rate for streaming audio online. The demands that SoundExchange have made really suggest, to myself at least, that the recording industry (specifically the RIAA, which SoundExchange represents) isn't interested in royalties or fairness, but in control.

The reality of internet streaming audio, after all, is that it tends to make major record labels superfluous. The way things used to work is that an artist who wanted to be heard in the major markets--America, Britain or Western Europe--or who wanted worldwide distribution had to sign with a larger label. The label would then handle not just production of the record, printing of the record, and distribution, but also promotion, publicity, and the other things that go into making or breaking a record. This gave the labels a vast amount of power--the labels didn't merely try to predict what the public might want (though that was an element of success in the industry), but also served as gatekeepers, filters and tastemakers; if the demand for an artist didn't already exist, a promotional campaign in record stores, on television, on radio, and in local appearances might certainly stir interest and create a demand. That power to create artists and reap the profits vanishes if literally billions of people online can click on a link in their browsers and listen to one of thousands or millions of audio sources streaming from and to assorted individual tastes: even if every single person who hears a streaming audio track goes out and buys the song the internet neutralizes the labels' most powerful and lucrative function because they are no longer in control of limited markets.

Let me put it another way: if my only choices in music are between an in-store CD by Fall Out Boy and Brittney Spears (and I'm not picking on them, I'm just pulling out two examples), then it's one or both of those records or nothing. And if that's all I've heard because that's all the two or five or ten local FM pop stations play, there's a good chance I'll buy one of those records if I like music because that's all I know and all I can get. But if I can pick from a thousand stations around the world and order something indie from CD Baby or some import of a Japanese band nobody's ever heard of through Amazon, I'm not longer relying on Universal Music Group (parent to Island Records, Fall Out Boy's label) or Sony Music Entertainment (parent to Jive, Ms. Spears' label) to tell me what I ought to like. It's not that I might be buying less music, it's that my musical purchases are going to be spread out and less-likely to benefit one of the gargantuan corporations that dominate the Recording Industry Association Of America and similar trade groups abroad.

See why they want to kill the music?

The common criticism is that this is short-sighted of the industry; it is and it isn't. The long-term truth, actually, is that they're probably doomed even if they throttle internet radio because their model of signing and saturating the market with a few choice acts is likely to fail; the market is never going to become less fractious thanks to the internet, and the most they might really accomplish (especially during a recession) is that people might purchase less music from everybody. If they're doomed anyway, and they know it, stifling internet radio and distribution channels at least prolongs their crummy existence and milks a few more bucks for their shareholders until, as they say, the revolution comes and their backs are against the wall. It is short-sighted, however, in that it should be fairly obvious that if they're doomed it might be smarter to diversify and find ways to exist with the emerging reality instead of alienating everybody except their shareholders by taking the position of moustache-twirling bad guys tying helpless webcasters to the tracks while snarling about the rent being due.

Much of this I've said before. The reason for saying it again is that Rusty Hodge, the general manager of SomaFM says in his blog that SoundExchange has made yet another unconscionable offer. What makes the latest offer even more onerous is that not only is SoundExchange offering financial terms that most webcasters couldn't begin to meet, but they're apparently upset about the appropriately shitty publicity they're getting over it, and so their offer includes a gag order: not only should webcasters pay up, but they should stop talking about the negotiations and give up their constitutional right to petition their lawmakers for redress of grievances (remember, the Copyright Royalties Board is a department of the Library Of Congress, which--if the name isn't clear enough by itself--is a department of Congress).

This is appalling, utterly and terribly so. If broadcast royalties are to be set by the government, then the public has an absolute right to know how those policies come about, and the parties have a right speak publicly about their involvement. (This is not, mind you, technically a First Amendment issue--private parties can certainly make it a condition of an agreement that they waive rights they might normally have to talk about the agreement; this is however, a public policy and transparency issue.) I would never suggest SoundExchange should abandon their right to present their side of the negotiations. But, of course, SoundExchange is perfectly aware that if the public hears their side and the broadcasters' side of it, one of those sides sounds like the side of greedy pre-technological assholes and the other side sounds like the side of reasonable people who want to make art more accessible to the world.

And one thing to be clear on: nobody reasonable is saying artists shouldn't receive broadcast royalties from streaming audio, or that SoundExchange doesn't have a right to negotiate royalties on behalf of their artists (as it happens, there's inevitably been some question of over-reaching by SoundExchange, since many artists who will be affected by the royalty negotiations aren't in fact represented by SoundExchange clients, much as the RIAA has been found suing for "violations" of copyrights not actually owned by RIAA members). The position of SomaFM and other responsible webcasters is that they are willing to pay reasonable royalties. The sticking point has been the question of what is reasonable.

Of course, as I've said, there's reason to believe SoundExchange is not interested in a reasonable accommodation instead of annihilation.

If you're concerned, I suggest you write your congressman. And in light of the recent attempt by SoundExchange to stifle open discussion, I'd also suggest you do what you can to publicize this latest attempt to preserve the big labels' oligopoly. There's more music in the world than the Big Four labels can ever provide for--which is why they don't want you to hear it.


Anonymous,  Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 9:48:00 PM EST  

Too late to write your congressman. The deal has to be concluded by Feb 15th.

Eric Sunday, February 15, 2009 at 10:10:00 PM EST  

Yeah, and I haven't heard how many webcasters took it.

I'd still certainly encourage anyone who's concerned to keep an eye on the issue, and yes--even if it's too late for the deal from the 15th--write your representatives. The royalties issue is going to continue coming up, with any webcasters who survive or with future technologies.

David Tuesday, February 17, 2009 at 2:27:00 PM EST  

Another approach to music discovery is 'social music recommendation' based on the psychological perception of music.
Our new service Music Patterns provides customized playlists based on music that 'People Like You' actually listen to.

Using a psychology-based approach to music preferences , this method combines your individual preferences with identifying those that are similar to your 'music personality.'

This new form of social music recommendation was developed from years of research in this area by best selling author Dr. Dan Levitin and our team at Signal Patterns.

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