Monday, May 7, 2007

...But The Radio Rolled Me

How often do you listen to the radio?

If you’re a frequent listener, you’ve probably noticed a lack of variety on your favorite station. Top 40 stations, of course, are expected to play the same songs over and over, but it seems to me that nearly EVERY music station now has a fairly short playlist. My own preferred station used to be an oldies format – “the best of the 60’s and 70’s.” You’d think that with two decades of hits to choose from, they could avoid playing the same song twice for long periods of time, but that turned out not to be the case. Instead, they made a big deal out of providing a “no-repeat workday” – they managed to avoid repeating a song for a mere eight hours, and thought that worthy of mention in their advertising!

Just to make things worse, the oldies format apparently no longer fits their preferred demographic, so they’ve switched over to a “classic rock” format. Still some good music, but it has an even smaller selection from a longer time period. I don’t track their playlist, of course, but one Saturday while I was running errands, I managed to catch the same song THREE times in the course of the day. I might not have noticed, but it was a song I hate – “Radar Love.” (I can name that tune AND change the station in six notes, Jim!) Even songs I love, like “American Pie,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Black Water” begin to pall the third or fourth time I hear them in a week.

Wil Wheaton offers an explanation of the problem in his Geek in Review column. (Not Safe For Work – you may prefer to read this blog entry on the subject.) In short, he suggests that the recording industry profits depend on selling a lot of records by a few artists, instead of a smaller number of records by a larger number of artists. That reasoning makes more sense for “new music” stations than for oldies or classic rock, but it isn’t completely unbelievable for any station format – especially with more than half of broadcast radio stations now owned by a single company.

Of course, thanks to the Internet, we have an option – Internet radio stations. They’re really not practical for the car, yet, but Launchcast, Last.FM, NPR, and other smaller stations provide a huge variety of options for a listener with broadband Internet access. The choices include the same formats you can find on the FM dial, like Top 40, R&B, Oldies, or Classic Rock. Or you can look for niche formats, all the way down to a specific artist. Or try out a specific DJ who listens to his own eclectic selections from a variety of genres, and is eager to share them with you.

But not for much longer, perhaps. Mr. Wheaton’s theory is well-confirmed, in my opinion, by the RIAA’s heavy influence on the recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board to change the performance royalty rates for digital broadcasts – specifically, for Internet radio stations. The CRB, a government entity empowered under the Library of Congress, changed the calculation from a percentage of the station’s revenue to a per-song, per-listener rate. Most sources I’ve seen indicate that this will raise the total royalties by 300-1200% - that’s three to twelve times the current fees. It is very hard to see such a huge increase as anything but an attempt to kill or cripple the entire concept of Internet radio. For the smaller independent stations, the fees will exceed any amount they could dream of receiving through advertising – even Yahoo! Music’s Launchcast service has stated they will be losing money on every listener under the new rates. For that matter, even NPR is concerned about the massive increase in fees, despite a “non-profit organization” exemption that partially frees them from royalties up to a certain number of listeners.

Congress is looking into changing the CRB’s decision through new legislation. If passed, Internet radio will, initially, pay the same rate as Satellite radio, 7.5% of revenue. That’s still considerably more that broadcast stations pay. While standard radio stations do pay composition royalties identical to digital stations, the broadcasters do not pay performance royalties at all – and those are the rates that have been raised by the CRB.

If the RIAA and ClearChannel succeed in their attempt to kill Internet radio, then your listening options will be sharply curtailed. Naturally, you can make your opinion known in a number of ways. Write a letter to the editor. Post on your own blog. Write your Congressman. But there’s an even simpler way to really make the point to those who want to control your music.

Stop listening.

Yes, that’s right: boycott. Turn off your radio. This is not like that stupid “don’t buy gas for one day” boycott e-mail that you’ve probably seen – I’m actually asking for a sacrifice. Turn off your radio. If everyone in the country did that for one day a week, even on different days, that would be about a 14% decrease in listeners for broadcast radio. That’s enough to make a significant difference to their advertisers, their profits, and their lobbying budget. If you can manage it for two or three days, or better yet, all week, the effect is even better. It won’t be immediate, of course…but if even a minority of radio listeners make a significant change in their listening habits, it can have an effect.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to stop listening to music – you have other options. If you’re at home, tune into an Internet station – not the live stream from a broadcast station, but an Internet-only music source – that is, for as long as they’re still around. For the car, it depends on what technology you have available. Worst-case, you can make your own mix tapes or burn CDs for your car. If your stereo will play MP3 CDs, you can put 8-10 hours of songs on a single CD. Even better, buy a cheap MP3 player. You don’t need an iPod – a no-name 1 GByte player is now in the $20-$30 range, and should hold almost as much as a CD, even if (like mine) it requires a space-wasting format to work with the copyright protection software the RIAA has forced on the manufacturers. There are several name-brand players in the 2 to 4 GB range for less than $100. Better, you can swap the songs on that player whenever they get old, or use it to play podcasts that are new every week or so. You’ll also need a personal FM transmitter to get the songs from your player to your car speakers, but those are around $20-$30, too. My 2GB player held nearly enough music to cover a 20-hour round trip to visit my mom…without a single repeated song, nor any trouble with losing stations as I drove out of range. It is more than enough to handle a week of city driving, including my 40-minute or more one-way commute.

Make the commitment. Pick one day a week, and boycott your favorite radio stations. You may find you like your other options better, anyway, and that you’d rather listen to them all the time…and that could send a message that even the RIAA can’t ignore.

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