After years of back and forth negotiating (and more than a couple public spats), it appears that SoundExchange and music webcasters like Pandora have finally worked out an agreement on webcasting rates
. If you don't recall, the Copyright Royalty Board assigned absolutely ridiculous royalty rates a few years ago, which seemed to have no bearing on reality (random aside: no one has yet explained why we feel it's okay for a small group of judges to determine what is a "fair rate"). The original rates would almost certainly put most webcasting operations completely out of business. But before delivering that death sentence, SoundExchange, the RIAA-spinoff that gets to collect the money (and has a long history of hanging onto it for longer than necessary and having trouble "finding" the artists it owes money to), thankfully agreed to hold off enforcing the new rates while everyone negotiated.
Since then, there has been a wide variety of back and forth details until the official agreement was put in place today... and even though many of the news stories present this as SoundExchange somehow backing down and "Pandora" winning, the details, frankly, seem so out of touch with reality it's difficult to see how it makes any sense at all. The main issue is performance rights, which radio stations already don't have to pay because radio is helping to promote
artists. The idea that webcasters/broadcasters should need to pay artists for the right to promote them to fans just seems bizarre and borderline incomprehensible in the first place.
Also worth noting is that the royalty rates that traditional broadcasters do
pay (to composers/songwriters/publishers) averages out between 3 and 4% of revenue. So, if you really had to come up with a reasonable rate to pay performers as well, you might think that it would start around that same 3 or 4%. Even that would be a pure bonus for performers who are used to getting nothing as a royalty (tax) from radio. But... no. The agreement is an astounding 25% of revenue
as a bare minimum, with a requirement to kick-in $25,000 just to be a webcaster at all.
Pandora claims they're happy about this because it keeps Pandora in business (and settles a big legal dispute, which hopefully allows them to go raise some money to stay in business). But it's a stunningly large percentage of revenue that will make things prohibitively expensive for most webcasters to really stay in business. You now have to have huge margins to get anywhere in a notoriously competitive business.
Who loses? Well, just about everyone outside of SoundExchange/RIAA. Already, despite being happy about this deal, Pandora has announced that it's sharply curtailing its free service
, and if you listen to more than 40 hours per month, you'll need to start paying. Most webcasters now have a huge expense that will make it difficult for many of them to remain in business at all. Musicians are severely harmed as well. While a few top musicians might get a new royalty check from SoundExchange (when and if it gets around to "finding" those artists), most musicians will now get less
exposure, making it that much more difficult for them to put in place the successful modern business models needed to succeed today. This basically just rewards the RIAA/SoundExchange and a few large artists who will get an extra royalty check. Everyone else is worse off.
Some might say the NAB and traditional radio stations also make out nicely, in that since these rates may harm webcasters, it takes away some competition, but even if the radio stations are happy in the short-run, it's a bad deal. These rates, certainly, will likely influence any eventual "performance right" that's added to terrestrial radio, and could significantly jack up the cost of running a regular radio station as well.
We're living in an era of amazing technological progress, where it's easy
for anyone to go out and promote musicians to others and help get those musicians and a larger audience, and all the RIAA has done, time and time again, is work as diligently as possible to prevent anyone but itself from promoting artists. What a shame. This "deal" does nothing to help up-and-coming artists and will significantly limit their ability to get their music noticed.