Damming the Streams

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.

"The ways these lines are being drawn, it's like a replay of the college-radio '80s with all this fresh talent coming out. Only this time around, the federal government is weighing in on the side of all the old tired stadium acts and the established record labels that make money off those acts," claims Martin. "They're essentially making a public decision against creativity."

Those that can afford to pay Billington's fees -- the conglomerates -- will do so. The irony is that their presence on the Web is irrelevant. Who out there is clamoring for an audio stream of Sunny 99? Is there really someone in the airwave-deprived boonies desperate for an ad-clogged Celine Dion fix? Please raise your hand at once -- write a letter to Racket and justify your existence.

We don't need this dross congesting the Net as well as the box. Ergo, webcasters. They provide what the Web is supposed to be all about: choice. Want an all-Louisiana music station? You got it. How about the all-Beethoven-all-the-time of Beethoven.com? Sure. How about Soma FM with its jungle, drum 'n' bass and ambient techno? Got that too, or you did until June 20, when Soma pulled the plug. Soma's webmaster estimated that under Billington's guidelines, the station would have had to pay the prohibitive cost of almost $180,000 a year, or more, should they attract additional listeners.

KTRU General Manager Will Robedee can only laugh at the catch-22: "A lot of stations won't be able to pay now, and the larger your audience the more it costs you. A lot of stations are saying, 'Why do this now, if a year from now my audience grows and I won't be able to pay for it? So don't come listen to us, we're at our maximum.'

"It's a terrible thing for college radio," Robedee continues. "It doesn't make any sense. It's not like we're a commercial operation where we can just raise our commercial rates, or get more buyers." Robedee is lobbying instead for an annual copyright fee, say $200 to $250, independent of listenership. (Robedee's views are available on the Net in great detail at www.ruf.rice.edu/~willr/cb/sos/index2.shtml.)

But Martin, a veteran free-speech advocate and radio pirate, is having no more of playing by the rules. "You can either live in the hell of your despair or the heaven of your aspirations," he says. "I'm not going to build a business plan on the concept that I'm going to get shut down."

There are ways, Martin says, of getting around the whole mess. "What I've seen so far looks unenforceable. When they come asking for the money then we'll talk, but I'm not gonna waste a lot of time and money worrying. When I get the certified letter, then it will become a reality."

Martin says the larger independent webcasters have more to fear than his underground outfit, but he suggests that they, too, use their heads rather than lose them. "It just seems to me that offshore server farms are going to start making lots of money off of U.S.-based webcasters," he posits. "Some place like Aruba, where you don't pay no steenkin' copyrights."

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Nice to see that the Houston Chronicle has noticed that there is a music scene in this town beyond Destiny's Child. (One burning Chron question: Why doesn't Beyoncé Knowles have a boyfriend? Answer: She's too busy being fabulous.) They recently unveiled a recurring local-band feature, and Dune*TX was perhaps the first local-and-proud-of-it band to grace those august pages since the departure of critic Rick Mitchell. On the other hand, wouldn't local coverage be better provided by a writer based in Houston? Former Press music editor Anthony Mariani is now phoning it in to the Chron from Fort Worth.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax