July 30, 2007
It’s a marriage made in heaven. But, as usual, the Recording Industry Association of America, infamously known as the RIAA, is taking that marriage straight to hell.
I’m talking of course about Internet radio, the perfect platform for distribution of creative expression around the world, one offered at a low cost that made conventional radio a thing of the past. A mere decade ago, if you were looking for a radio station that rotated anything except mainstream Top 40 playlists, you were left out in the cold. Well, as far as radio was concerned, that is. Fans of pioneering P2P sites likes Napster kept everyone else well-fed on a steady diet of easily downloadable music catered specifically to their tastes, which they then plugged into any number of players for even easier listening. But those looking not to download but only to listen to something different than what they could have on increasingly consolidated standard radio networks didn’t have much of an alternative.
But that was before Internet radio went supernova. As more and more web-savvy publishers started building their own sites and playing whatever they felt like playing–even a nonstop rotation of Christmas tunes–mainstream radio, and the music industry along with it, went belly up with irrelevance.
The question begged to be answered: Why should listeners be straitjacketed into formats they want nothing to do with, when they could log on to any indie webcast, like the thousands that could be found on Live365 and similar netcasters, and listen to exactly what they were looking for? Better yet, why would they ever buy a CD again, when not only is it a precious waste of plastic and paper, but altogether narrow compared to the massive playlists they can beam directly to their stereos from their iPods or other portable players? Why, in the end, would they ever go back to the major labels and mainstream radio at all?
Here’s an easy answer: Because they are forced to. That has been the modus operandi of the RIAA ever since they nailed Napster to the wall. Their next target, dear listener, is you, and they’ve spent no shortage of millions to convince you that, rather than a passive user and promoter of entertainment, you are a criminal worthy of prosecution. As the popular blog Recording Industry vs. the People puts it, the RIAA’s strategy is nothing less than to “monopolize digital music by redefining copyright law, through the commencement of tens of thousands of extortionate lawsuits against ordinary working people.”
So much for the customer is always right. That strategy has come to fruition with the recent rise in rates promoted and governed by SoundExchange, a so-called nonprofit formed in 2000 by the RIAA that nevertheless collects royalties for copyright owners and featured artists for digital transmissions across satellite and Internet radio. A March ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB)–a panel of three judges named Stanley Wisniewski, James S. Sledge and William J. Roberts–raised royalty rates to astronomical heights. After sifting through 48 days and 13,288 pages of sworn testimony, from net radio webcasters and those who listen to them to the RIAA and its supporters, the three judges raised rates so high that they can exceed the actual revenue of the webcasters who pay them, a conundrum dismissed by the board as bearing no relevance to the market value of the rights held by the copyright holders. In other words, indie netcasters are priced out the market, while mainstreamers, whose pockets are lined with label and RIAA cash, are given unfair advantage. San Francisco’s SomaFM’s rates went from $10,000 in 2006 to $600,000 in 2007, even though their revenue stream is capped at $125,000. That all-Christmas station mentioned earlier? Shut down for good.