Jun 10, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Lin Brehmer faces off with CBS Radio

lin-head-shot.jpgBrehmer has been the morning guy on WXRT in Chicago for about fifteen years, part of a team of DJs who are arguably the smartest and most music conscious of any at any commercial outlet in the country.

This was his latest Facebook post:

Lin Brehmer If you have received an email from my place of business concerning a political action and it is allegedly from me, rest assured I did not write the email; I never read the email; and i certainly never endorsed the email before it was sent to over 100,000 listeners. It’s just something they do. Send out emails and sign my name to them without my knowledge. I will always be on the side of the musicians.

He doesn’t say what the email was about, but, based on his last line, one can guess that it was apparently an email broadcast, sent under his name, from CBS Radio, ‘XRT’s corporate owners, about the moves by the music industry to try to exact a performance tax out of radio.

Currently, radio kicks into a fund to pay songwriters when a song is played; when the industry got going, it was exempted from a performance tax, one that would go to the artists (and, not unimportantly, to their labels), on the sensible grounds that radio airplay represented free publicity.

Now the industry, which has been undergoing a delightful-to-watch financial waterboarding for the last decade, is scrabbling to get Congress to give it a performance tax.

Radio, as you can imagine, isn’t happy about it. Here’s a sample of CBS Radio’s argument:

Congress is considering a law that could force some of your favorite radio stations to limit the amount of music they play, or even drive some stations to stop playing music altogether by enacting a performance tax on free broadcast radio.

The NAB’s dedicated site to the issue is here.

Leaving aside CBS’s skanky use of Brehmer’s name, it’s a hard issue to come to a decision on. Commercial radio, which has treated listeners with contempt and the public airwaves as corporate ATM machines for decades, is in such horrific financial straits right now that (pace my friends at ‘XRT) one is reflexively in favor of anything that would help put the nail in its coffin.

On the other hand, it would seem that at least half of the performance fees would go to the labels, arguably the one entity in the U.S. entertainment industry more corrupt than commercial radio itself.

And MP3s and the internet have made radio irrelevant to serious music fans, so it’s no longer the menace it was when it controlled fans’ access to music.

An ideal solution would be for Congress to enact a performance royalty for radio that goes exclusively to the artist.

Since we’re fantasizing, it would be nice if Congress also enacted a law placing formal fiduciary responsibility on the labels in terms of their handling of artist royalties, which would create a strict legal mechanism to correct the current state of affairs, which allows labels not to pay royalties essentially with legal impunity.

Apr 17, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Payola in internet radio

The Daily Swarm links to this Guardian story, which takes a look at the internet radio service called Jango:

Payola – the illegal practice of paying or in any other way bribing a radio station to play your song – has existed since the advent of pop music. In the 1960s, Alan Freed was the first person convicted of payola and the book Hit Men described in detail how the practice was rife in the 70s and 80s. When the US government clamped down on it, record companies (and the radio stations benefiting from payola) got around the problem by paying “independent promoters” who would do the dirty work for them. But as recently as 2005-06, three of the major labels were indicted and settled out of court for pay-for-play practices.
Now webcaster Jango has come up with an ingenious way of legitimising these bribes, by declaring publicly that they’ve been paid to play songs. For as little as $30, a band can buy 1,000 plays on the music-streaming service, slotted in between established artists (who don’t pay for their slots, I assume). The artists themselves choose what other music they’d like to be played next to.

Like too many people who write about payola, the writer, Helienne Lindvall, doesn’t … understand what payola is. There’s no law against paying someone to play your songs on the internet, and Jango isn’t doing anything “ingenious.”

There is a law that says US broadcasters have to disclose payments for airplay, along with some other requirements. The broadcasters are using public airwaves, of course, and under statute at least are supposed to be operating in the public interest. Ha.

On the internet, who cares? Let the listener beware.

Mar 10, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Corgan on Capitol Hill!

Jim DeRogatis has a post about Chicago rocker and Visa spokesperson Billy Corgan speaking before Congress about the so-called Performance Rights Act, with which the music industry hopes to extract money from radio stations for playing their music.

Radio pays songwriters a “publishing” fee, but there’s no “performance” equivalent.  That is, Pepsi spokesperson Bob Dylan gets a few pennies each time Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” is played on a terrestrial radio station, but the Hendrix estate gets nothing.

… nor, incidentally, does Warner Brothers, which is really what all this is about. I’m not sure how these payments would break down. I assume it’s a performance fee rather than royalty, meaning the artist might typically get half of the payments rather than a much smaller fraction. Will research and report back.

As DeRo notes, the argument against the bill is that radio sells records with all the free airplay; songwriters get hosed all sorts of ways and so deserve their pittance, but the artist on the label is the one getting all the benefits of being played on the radio.

There’s no better illustration of this than the fact that the music industry spent hundreds of millions of dollars on payola to get radio stations to play their artists.

Seems a little churlish for them now to be taking the other tack.

If Congress had vision it would fashion the payments only to the artists themselves, the people who play on the CDs, working around the labels entirely.

The dynamic that seems to be unfolding in the industry is that the RIAA is using its waning days of influence to grandfather in some payments that will artificially keep the labels alive after technological changes have passed them by entirely. Congress should pass on the idea just on that basis alone.

Feb 13, 2009
Posted by: Hitsville

Clear Channel in the lurch!

From the NYT:

Local radio advertising fell a staggering 21 percent in November from the same month a year earlier, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau’s most recent figures. National advertising was down 25 percent.

That’s not even Clear Channel’s big problem! The company, according to the story, is making a ton of money. But the guys who took it private last year basically went in debt to the tune of $19 billion.

Feb 14, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Clear Channel decides more is more

Another report from the It Couldn’t Happen to a Nicer Group of People Desk:

Four years ago, Clear Channel opened up a new ad strategy, “Less Is More.” With stations clogged with ads and listenership decreasing, the company decided to try to stress shorter ads, and run fewer of them per hour. According to the Wall Street Journal ($), the company is now abandoning the strategy.

The story runs the numbers in various ways. Whether the strategy worked at all is open to dispute; the company’s radio division (like the industry as a whole) has been stagnant for years, but it’s possible that without the plan sales would have dropped farther. Still, for Clear Channel haters (like Hitsville), this is good news. The company contributed mightily to the ruination of radio in the late 1990s by buying up stations, running up the number of commercials per hours, ramping up the use of voice-tracking*, and de-localizing the industry generally. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the company’s execs acted like thugs and flouted federal ownership rules, as my colleague Eric Boehlert detailed with a great deal of brio in Salon in the early 2000s.

The rise of the iPod, internet radio and satellite has been a challenge for the terrestrial radio industry over the past half decade, but Clear Channel was losing listeners at the rate of several percent a year dating back to the mid-1990s. Anyway, the company’s stock price is off by a third since the “Less Is More” strategy started. Now it’s forced back into its traditional “screw the listener, let’s load up the joint with crappy ads” gambit. And that, you gotta think, will, in the long run, inevitably lead to even fewer listeners, poorer Arbitrons, less revenue, and a bigger stock decline.

*  Voicetracking is where a supposedly local radio station has its crappy DJ patter taped in bulk and in advance by someone in a different city, and then digitally stripped in between the songs.