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Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

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July 29, 2009

Dionne Warwick versus the Cartel

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I thought I had talked about the "Performance Rights Act" before - now called the Civil Rights for Musicians Act - before, but apparently not. You may recall that the act's sponsor, John Conyers, gained a moment of digital notoriety by publishing the Downing Street memos as samizdat that the official media wouldn't touch. Conyers' legislation is apparently attempting to close the rights loophole that radio enjoys.

Briefly: even though it's a pittance, artists do get some money from CD sales. Many of the digital download deals also funnel money back to artists. But when a musician's work is played on broadcast radio, no money goes back to the artist. Originally the theory was that the artist was 'compensated' in the form of exposure for his/her work, and radio producers and DJs chose things based on what audiences wanted or liked. Of course, there has always been pay-for-play (payola) of one form or another to influence radio playlists.

Conyers bill is an attempt to change this situation, instituting a set of fees for broadcast radio, along the lines of the fees that have been imposed on Web radio. One big difference: broadcast radio is extremely profitable, unlike Web radio. Satellite radio such as XM has made a splash but hasn't been able to back it up with solid financials. Sirius radio, for example, has been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for a while.

Dionne Warwick
To no one's great surprise, the big radio parts of the Cartel (particularly Radio One, which owns 54 radio stations in the US) have been hitting back. And this is where it gets really nasty, with Cathy Hughes, the CEO of Radio One, pleading poverty and making accusations about the motives of some of the bill's supporters. Which in turn has led Ms. Warwick to hit back in an op-ed piece blogged on Huffington Post in which she raises the specter not only of Cartel greed, but of outright racism in Hughes' attacks.

According to Warwick's column (and I confess I haven't read the bill), Conyer's Act would provide exemptions for the small and financially struggling radio stations while requiring large corporate radio to funnel at least a little money back to the artists. Sounds great - now why couldn't we get the same kind of Protection Act for Web radio?

Comments (7) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Big Thoughts


COMMENTS

1. Dan T. on July 30, 2009 4:12 PM writes...

Is it really fair of Warwick to play the race card as she's doing? Both the current rules and the proposed changes apply equally to white and black musical artists.

Permalink to Comment

2. DrWex on July 31, 2009 9:40 AM writes...

"fair" is a funny word here. I'm not in position to judge fairness since I'm white, and not a musician. Warwick is both a person of color and has had to deal with how commercial radio treats artists. So I'm inclined to give her words significant weight. It's true that the situation currently affects all performers equally when their tracks are played on radio, but it's also true that there are vast inequities in the system, some of which are based around race. For example, many black rappers have had a hard time getting airplay on some stations that easily added music by white rappers such as the Beastie Boys.

Is the current copyright payment arrangement "just" a problem for black artists? No. Is it appropriate for a black artist to be pointing out how it impacts black artists? I tend to think so. If the law is changed in part because the current system is perpetuating a situation where black artists of the past century (and certainly hundreds in Ms Warwick's prime era) were disproportionately taken advantage of - I can live with that.

Permalink to Comment

3. Mockingbird on August 2, 2009 3:43 PM writes...

The public deserves a quid-pro-quo. The public performance right in sound recordings should not be expanded unless the scope or duration of copyright is reduced somewhere else.

Permalink to Comment

4. Jason Block on August 3, 2009 11:25 AM writes...

Your description of the way artist compensation works is technically accurate but entirely misleading. First of all, I'd hardly call a dollar per album in royalties a 'pittance' considering most CD's now are about seven or eight bucks. This does not inlclude the songwriters royalties, which run between about a dollart and two dollars depending on the number of compositions.

While performers get no royalties for airplay, all of your favorite bands that write their own material are getting paid each time a song they wrote plays. It is required by law.

There is enough FUD about this on the internet without one more site distorting facts for their own purposes.

Permalink to Comment

5. DrWex on August 5, 2009 10:12 AM writes...

Jason

I'm not sure where your data comes from. The data I saw showed that artists were getting about a dollar on an $18-20 CD. I haven't seen any data suggesting that artists are still getting that same $1 as the prices have finally started to come down.

Finally, I would suggest that "pittance" is a judgment call, rather than a "distortion of fact." For example your claim that "most CD's now are about seven or eight bucks" is a claim of fact. Just for random fun I went to Amazon music and got a random selection of CDs recommended for me. Their prices are: $15.98, $21.99, $19.98 and $12.99. A further sample of all the CDs on my current wishlist shows me the lowest price is $9.99.

So perhaps you'd like to support your factual assertions before you pass judgment on others?

Permalink to Comment

6. Christopher on August 8, 2009 10:03 AM writes...

As an owner of a small radio station, not a conglomerate, but a true small town radio station, I can promise you that the passage of the bill will cripple small town independent radio forever.

I am not making millions in advertising. Exactly the opposite. I don't have a station that sits in a high population market. But I can assure you that MY community needs my station, as do thousands of other small towns that currently have a small independently owned station.

There are many, many minority owned radio stations in small communities that will be effected negatively by this act. So much so, that most of these station would have to shut down or go all talk.

In essence, the performers community, which is pushing this bill does not realize that some of their music, such as classic country, bluegrass, or jazz is not played all that often now at any rate. If it is played it is played by stations like mine. If I shut down, and put fifteen people out of work, because of the fact that I have to pay another "fee", when I ALREADY pay over $2k per month in royalties now, that the music won't get played?

The record industry and musicians slit their own throats years ago by pushing the single. They created the digital download market. They tried to exact fees out of everyone in an effort to make the music business what it wasn't about, MONEY.

Where are the people that loved music? Why don't they work for the companies anymore. Bring them back, put them back in radio, and you will see profit.

Until then, expect a quick downward slide in radio, much like that of the newspaper.

I could care less if Radio One or Clear Channel goes out of business. What I do care about are the small REAL community minded radio stations that still are struggling to exist.

This would be the death knell for those stations.
Guaranteed.

The day this bill is passed and the first time the 5k fee is brought to my station, I will be forced to close my doors.

It doesn't effect the big conglomerates, but it does effect the little man. I promise.

Permalink to Comment

7. DrWex on August 11, 2009 8:36 AM writes...

Christopher: My understanding of the bill was that it had exemptions for small stations, and that (unlike the punitive Web radio fees) it was based on the actual revenue a station earned. Did you read the bill differently? Perhaps I missed something?

Thank you for sharing your perspective.

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