Damming the Streams

The major labels want the Internet to be as arid as the airwaves

It's the end of Internet radio as we know it. Librarian of Congress James Billington, the man charged with administering copyright laws for music, decided on June 20 that webcasters must pay seven cents per song/listener to performers and record companies for broadcasting songs online.

It doesn't sound like much; in fact, it's half the rate recommended for webcast-only outfits by a federal arbitration panel. But Net radio stations like Houston's Earthwire say it's still far too rich for their blood. A station with 100 listeners taking in 15 songs an hour would have had to cough up $700 a week in fees, a figure that's beyond the budget of all but an elite few. In some cases, niche webcasters say, the per-week fees would outstrip their yearly income. They'll simply have to shut down on October 20 when the money's due.

Why do Internet radio stations have to pay record labels -- in addition to songwriters -- to play and promote their music? According to Earthwire entrepreneur M. Martin, it's because of the "totally spurious notion that our webcast constitutes a perfect copy of somebody's CD-based audio content."

"As proud as I am of our audio quality," he says, "that's just a freakin' joke. Nobody is recording CDs off of our streams."

But the Recording Industry Association of America -- the major-label, big-star lobby -- claims everybody's doing it, that the piracy inherent in webcasting outweighs the promotional value of niche broadcasting. "The RIAA is blaming operations like Earthwire for their crummy sales," claims a disbelieving Martin.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the RIAA is also unhappy with Billington's ruling -- for very different reasons. They think the webcasting fee is too cheap.

Disingenuous as always, RIAA President Cary Sherman issued the following statement: "…Artists and record labels will subsidize the webcasting businesses of multi-billion dollar companies like Yahoo, AOL, RealNetworks and Viacom. The rate… simply does not reflect the fair market value of the music…"

Sherman's just painting the same picture he did back when the RIAA choked Napster: The RIAA's mission is more to protect struggling bar bands and indie labels than it is to buy James Hetfield one more battle-ax or Dr. Dre another '64 Impala. Except this time Yahoo and not Napster -- a more worthy target -- is the bogeyman.

What the RIAA really wants is for the likes of Clear Channel to pay more online for the music it pimps for them for free on the radio, and also for the niche webcasters to go to hell. And despite the Chicken Little routine of National Association of Broadcasters President Edward Fritts ( "The Librarian's decision places a prohibitive financial burden on radio station streaming," he said. "[It] will likely result in the termination of this fledgling service to listeners…"), a mainstreamed Internet radio world -- one just like that of terrestrial radio -- would suit the RIAA and conglomerates like Clear Channel just fine.

After all, Clear Channel didn't snatch up over a thousand radio stations in the last ten years at a cost of billions of dollars just so the likes of lil' ol' you can go on some touchy-feely voyage of self- discovery through the magic of cyberspace music. And for its part, the RIAA supports Clear Channel's desire to keep all of us from busting out of the demographic boxes they spend so much money delineating. Neither party is served by Racket dialing up noise skronk and schizo C&W on Weirdsville.com or you and a loved one becoming better acquainted while tuned in and turned on to Fluffertrax.com, a webcaster devoted to the music of porn movies.

They want you from the cradle to the grave. If you're a white male 18 to 24, they want to keep you in Buzz Nation. If you're a white female 24 to 35, you are to stay in the Mix. If you've ever had either a mullet or a Trans Am or both, then you belong to the Arrow, not to mention the city and the night.

If you're male and young, apolitical and soured by all the pitiful music on the dial, then Clear Channel property Jim Rome's your man, and if you're old and cranky -- then you can tune in to another CC entity, Rush Limbaugh. If you're female and sick of it all, you can turn to someone who is even more fed up than you -- here Racket speaks of the dreaded morals hag Dr. Laura Schlessinger. If you claim to have invented a perpetual motion machine that Exxon and the World Bank are suppressing and are possessed of a grand unified theory involving the pyramids, the Freemasons, Chupacabra, Osama bin Laden, crop circles and Alexander Haig, then CC has provided Art Bell for your nocturnal stimulation.

Alarmingly, there must be a lot of us out there who conform to one or more of those demographics, otherwise Clear Channel wouldn't have them on the air. But if you want to check in on the indie scene on the Lower East Side or hear what's new on the Malagasy folk circuit, that's your problem, freak. There ain't no percentage in it. If everybody doesn't want it, then companies like Clear Channel, AOL-Time Warner and Disney are here to see to it that nobody gets it. And the feds are on their side.

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