The Sound of Silence

Tune your computer to your favorite Internet radio station today and you may find yourself listening, not to music, but to silence. To protest the new royalty rates set by the Copyright Renewal Board, scheduled to go into effect this July 15th – but retroactive to Jan 1, 2006 – hundreds, maybe thousands, of Internet radio stations are going silent today. Their point? They can not afford the new, ‘one-size-fits-all’ royalty rates and will likely be forced out of business if the law is not reviewed. The fixed royalty rates are particularly destructive to small internet radio stations, who are being asked to pay exactly the same amount of money as the major internet radio stations. To quote from the web site, which seems especially eloquent on the matter:

The webcasters of noncommercial stations across the country, as well as online radio stations across the world, are the best and most enthusiastic supporters of both the best new music and the diversity of niche formats. Nobody wins if webcast rate hikes force these stations offline. FMC remains committed to the notion that large commercial webcasters should pay higher rates, similar to the higher rates paid in a terrestrial radio setting, but we call on parties to adopt reasonable rates and reporting requirements for clearly-defined categories of small, noncommercial and hobbyist webcasters that will ensure the future development of this medium.

Nobody is asking for a free ride. Artists absolutely should get paid for online broadcasting of their music, especially as the abundance of Internet radio is one of the many factors driving down record sales. But bear in mind, that Internet radio serves as one of the primary ways that new, independent and/or non-mainstream artists get their music out to the public these days, and that in turn drives both record sales and, particularly, gig attendance. When I want to have my taste buds piqued, desire to hear something new and adventurous, want to get a sense of what’s happening in the world-wide underground, I don’t tune into my local Clear Channel station. Oh no. I visit either one of the excellent terrestrial radio stations that streams its shows online – KEXP, KCRW and WFMU are three of the most deservedly well-known – or one of the niche channels that exists purely online, like radioindiepop or altrok or indiefeed. Thanks to these stations, I can live in the countryside and remain better connected to new music than if I lived next door to an indie record store.

Many of these stations already pay out a third or more of their income on royalties; the new fees will be, in most cases, greater than their income, which makes them not just unprofitable but untenable. Live365, which serves as a clearing house for niche stations and handles their administration, currently pays $1.5 million in royalties on $4 million income. On July 15, they will be up against a $7 million royalty payment, including the 18 months of retroactive royalties. Similar percentage figures apply to smaller stations who handle their own administration. If these stations are driven off line by fixed, exorbitant royalty rates, I will suffer as a listener, and the bands that I love will suffer too, losing a vital outlet for their music as well as a source of royalties.

Figures supplied by RAIN show how several specific stations will be forced to pay out more in royalties than they generate in revenue.

Among those observing the day of silence are major hitters like MTVRadio, Pandora, Yahoo!Launch and Rhapsody, along with any number of terrestrial radio stations (WOXY and WXPN, sadly not KEXP) and a galaxy of online-only outlets. A long list is available here: it serves as a great entry point for tomorrow morning, when you can follow the links to each individual station and remind yourself why they matter. And by the way, just because I listen to a lot of indie music hardly means that’s all you can hear on Internet Radio: there are bluegrass, hip-hop, folk, classic rock, dance, experimental, world music stations out there. WNYC, while keepings its talk stations streamin today, has closed down its classical music streaming station for 24 hours.

To find out more about the Copyright Royalty Board’s decision, how you can challenge it, and about the battles facing internet radio in general, you can tune into KCRW’s special, repeated all-day one-hour broadcast on the subject. Or you can visit any of these web pages:



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