Boy, this is an ironic world, ain't it? Former KMEL DJ Davey-D--fired by Clear Channel in 2001 after he broadcast interviews with Barbara Lee and Boots Riley which criticized the war in Iraq--has come out in support of the commercial radio giant. In a recent post on his website, Davey writes, "Now as most of y'all know I'm no fan of Clear Channel, but on this issue I am fully behind them."
What gives? Well, the issue at stake is the Performance Rights Act, a Congressional bill which, among other things, proposes a new $1000 annual fee on non-commercial broadcasters that play recorded music. The bill also stipulates a flat fee of $5000 for individual commercial stations with less than $1.25 million in annual revenues, to be paid to a organization called Music FIRST, which then distributes it to artists whose songs are aired.
That all sounds well and good in theory, especially since it seems to imply that artists will be entitled to the same royalties that songwriters already receive. As Smashing Pumpkins prima donna, er, frontman Billy Corgan told the House Judiciary Committee last Tuesday (a transcript is here), "The future demands new partnerships and a rethinking of long-held practices about how artists should be compensated for their music."
But here's the catch: in practice, the PRA would actually limit
diversity on the airwaves. It's worth noting that the bill was
sponsored by the RIAA, a lobbying group comprised of the major record
labels, who have a vested economic interest in the outcome. As the National
Association of Broadcasters' Radio Chairman Steve Newberry told Congress
on March 10, "it boggles my mind that a bill that is supposed to be
about benefiting artists, takes 50 percent of the performance fee and
puts it into the pockets of the big four record labels... The record
labels actually walk away with more money under this bill than do the
featured artists. The real problem, which this bill does not address,
is between the artists and these mega-record labels."
In fact, the bill could actually be harmful for artists who are not receiving airplay on commercial stations--which includes most local and independent artists across the country, especially artists whose viewpoint covers political or socially-conscious topics Big Radio won't touch.
Currently, non-major label artists receive very little airplay on commercial stations; indie-label artists have been traditionally supported by non-commercial college and community stations, such as KALX, KPOO and KPFA. Those stations do not have the budgets that chain outlets do, and are not operated as for-profit entities; rather they maintain a commitment to serve community needs over those of corporate interests. If the PRA passes, they get dinged for additional operating expenses, which in the case of already financially-challenged outlets, could prove to be a hardship. OTOH, five grand is a drop in the bucket for a station like KMEL, or any other Clear Channel station.
In addition to on-air ad sales and promotional cross-marketing agreements, commercial stations have, uh, other sources of revenue unavailable to non-commercial outlets. Despite a 2007 FCC-mandated agreement between Clear Channel and other major radio broadcasters in response to a federal investigation into pay-for-play practices, a Future of Music Coalition study released in October 2008 found "Nearly half of respondents reported that payola remains a determining factor in commercial radio airplay."
For indie artists, free airplay on college and community stations is often the only airplay they get, and since those stations don't run ads and thus don't charge advertising fees--relying on listener support to pay operating expenses--they don't have the luxury of simply raising ad rates to cover this additional expense.
while Clear Channel and non-commercial radio advocates have become
strange bedfellows in the debate over this controversial issue, passage
of the PRA would affect community stations far more than corporate
radio; likewise, major label artists would benefit more than indie
artists, yet the major labels themselves would benefit the most of all.