How The Recording Industry Changes Its Own Story
from the anything-for-the-money dept
We’ve already discussed how silly the Performance Rights Act is — and how it’s basically an attempt by the record labels to get their own bailout courtesy of radio stations. There are all sorts of problems with it, and Jess Walker does an amazing job explaining just how ridiculous the Performance Rights Act is. In doing so, he highlights one point that is quite a common trick in the RIAA’s bag of tricks, but which doesn’t get enough attention: how it changes the story to flip things around to its advantage over and over and over again. Case in point: the RIAA is arguing that it needs to get royalties to performers for radio air play to “even out” the situation, since radio is the “only” platform where performers don’t get royalties. For example, they point to internet radio and satellite radio, where artist do get paid.
So, the RIAA claims, this is unfair… after all, why should they get paid for all of those, but not radio?
Except, the RIAA conveniently wants us all to forget history. That’s because it was the RIAA who argued that satellite radio, internet radio and other forms of broadcasting were different from terrestrial radio, and therefore required different royalty structures. In other words, the only reason why this “unfair” dichotomy exists in the first place is because the RIAA lobbied for it by claiming that satellite radio and internet radio were different.
Now it wants everyone to forget that and pretend that it’s some weird “anomaly” that terrestrial radio doesn’t include performance royalties? Don’t buy it. This is the sort of thing the industry has pulled off for years — pushing one country to extend copyright laws, and then moving to other countries and working up a lobbyist campaign about how that country isn’t keeping up with other, more reasonable countries, concerning copyright laws. Have you noticed what’s happening in Canada these days? That’s a direct example of this sort of thing.
Walker also takes on other points to show how silly and dangerous the Performance Rights Act would be. It benefits no one but the record labels. It harms radio stations. It harms independent musicians. It harms big musicians as well (since most of the money doesn’t go to them, but to the record labels). Who does it help? The RIAA, of course:
And for what? Imagine, as a thought experiment, that this bill were passed and, simultaneously, payola were made fully legal. Does anyone doubt that more money would flow toward the radio stations than away? Radio remains the primary means by which the music industry promotes its product. By pushing for this fee, the labels are essentially asking their advertisers to pay them for the service of selling their stuff.
Ah, you say, but what about the independent artists who don’t get big promotional pushes from the major music labels? Surely they’d benefit from a new revenue stream? Actually, they’ll be even worse off. The economic mission of most commercial radio stations is to deliver audiences to the sponsors whose spots are aired between tunes. So programmers have a built-in preference for music whose mass appeal has already been proven. If you increase the cost of playing a record, that just intensifies the incentive: The more you pay to play a song, the more conservative you’ll be about which songs you play. The marginal cost of playing each track is the same, but the commercial payoff is greater for established artists.
Generally speaking, the more it costs to run a station, the more risk-averse it will be. That’s one reason low-power and Web outlets are more experimental: They don’t have as much money on the line. But those stations–the ones that go out of their way to play diverse and unfamiliar material–are precisely the ones that have the hardest time paying the song tax. The proposed law acknowledges the problem by introducing a sliding scale, with the least profitable outfits paying $500 a year. But while that may be chump change for a big broadcaster, it’s a pretty big piece of the operating budget for a low-power, volunteer-run community or student station.
Nor is it the only cost the law will impose. “The record labels are completely out of touch as to how college radio stations operate,” Warren Kozireski, president of College Broadcasters Inc., recently complained on his organization’s website. “The extensive record keeping requirements that will be required by the Copyright Royalty Board alone will add hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to the true cost of a performance fee.” It’s relatively easy to do that book-keeping if you have a narrow playlist and rarely deviate from it, as is the case with most large commercial radio stations. But if you have a library of thousands of albums and 45s, many of which were never reissued on CD, and if you allow your DJs to choose which ones they play–or even to bring in still more music from their personal collections of rare soul or jazz or bluegrass or electronica obscurities–then tracking the data suddenly becomes a full-time job.
Worse yet: Though the rhetoric around the proposal focuses on the benefits to musicians, much of the money won’t make it to the artists in the first place. In part that reflects the fact that the fees go not just to the performers but to the copyright owner, which frequently means the record company. But it also reflects the corruption in the industry, which legislation like this has probably abetted.
As we’ve seen time and time again, if the RIAA supports it, it’s not good for consumers. It’s not good for musicians. It’s not good for anyone but a small selection of record labels. Hopefully, Congress recognizes this for the pure money grab it is and shuts it down.