Friday, March 16, 2007

DO TOUCH THAT DIAL



[This article was originally published in the 3/15/07 edition of Metroland Magazine.]

OK, here’s a good deal. Go to www.SXSW.com and click on “toolkit”. On the upper right of the page there is a torrent file that will get you 749 MP3 song files of bands that are playing at the South by Southwest Festival this week in Austin. It’s free and totally legal. These are bands that want you to hear them. So, go get the download and listen! I’m still discovering new bands from last year’s batch of songs. You’ll be introduced to great bands with names like I Can Lick Every Sonofabitch in the House, Deaf in the Family, and my favorite: Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.

A few years ago when I started doing radio again (you can hear my show The Splatto Festival most Fridays at 3 PM streaming at Berkshireradio.org) I started digging around for the music of my youth. My grade school best friend’s older brother had a band in Batavia, New York that released a 45 RPM single in 1967, a prize from winning a battle of the bands contest. I got a copy of the single when it came out, but it’s long gone. I’m sure only 500 copies or so were made. Now, 40 years later, I doubted that I’d be able to locate a copy anywhere. But I really wanted to find it and play it on the radio.

So I did a Google search, and voila, there it was, listed on playlists of two tiny internet radio stations. I contacted both, and both graciously offered to email me an MP3 of the single for a small donation. I’ve played the A-side, a terrific Byrds-y version of John D. Loudermilk’s Tobacco Road on the radio a bunch of times. A 40 year old obscurity, some upstate New York teenagers pouring their hearts onto vinyl, has new life. I’ve emailed copies to my old best friend and a few other folks who were around Batavia in 1967, and they’re thrilled to have it again. And I couldn’t have done it without the help of obsessive music freaks who collect stuff like this, digitize it, and maintain internet radio stations where they broadcast, to the whole world, their little slices of heaven, rescued from the remains of our collective culture. As far as I’m concerned, these people are doing God’s work.

And this may all soon come to a crashing halt, if the federal Copyright Office, spoon-fed policy from the recording industry, has its way.

Radio stations traditionally have been allowed to play recordings for free. Songwriters got paid through ASCAP and BMI fees paid by broadcasters, but not record companies. Radio play has always been considered promotional, and the broadcast industry lobbyists apparently paid off Congress better than the recording industry’s. And it makes sense: given that the record industry is constantly getting caught illegally paying off radio for airplay, the idea of radio paying record companies to play music is stupid. Not the way of the world.

Then along comes the internet, where anybody can put up a radio station. Where the number of stations and the diversity of selections are unlimited. And where, increasingly, people are going to listen, because broadcast radio generally sucks. Broadcast radio and the music industry, both threatened by this new egalitarian and uncontrollable phenomenon, convinced Congress (well, OK, paid Congress) to pass a bill that made a distinction between broadcast (open air) music and digitally transmitted (internet) music. Broadcast music would still be free, but digital transmissions of music now required a performance royalty. And the level of that royalty would be set by the Copyright Office.

So the playing field between broadcast radio and internet radio was tilted to favor broadcast radio, dominated by corporate behemoths like Clear Channel, and to the detriment of internet programmers. A few years ago the Copyright Office recommended a level of royalties that would have killed internet radio for all but the biggest players, and those recommendations were beaten back to a manageable level. Now a new set of royalties have been proposed, and they’re worse. The new proposed royalties, which apparently mirror a proposal made to the Copyright Office from the RIAA, would wipe out smaller niche programmers, folks who are putting up the music you won’t hear anywhere else, the archivists, the geeks, the people who are putting music on the internet not for money, but for love. Folks who champion artists who will never get played on commercial radio, and who program from the heart, not from a focus group study. Who reside on the fringes, and aren’t rushing to the lower common denominator, or making shareholders happy.

The proposed royalty rates can be appealed, and the issue may wind up in court or back in Congress. But right now is a shaky period for internet radio, which hasn’t yet learned to crawl, much less walk. And it’s disheartening to see that the Copyright Office is so deeply in the pocket of the industry, and hasn’t got the slightest clue about what is vital for the sustenance of our culture and cultural heritage. Sickening, really.

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