There is a funny old record out there, whose artist and title escapes me, that includes a little jingle about music radio: “If the records weren’t free, we’d be all news!” Some 30 or more years after that was jokingly sung, we’ve almost arrived at the point where that might, sadly, become a reality.
There is a bill before Congress right now to force radio stations to pay royalties to the record companies, and by extension singers and musicians, for playing their music. Of course, there are many of your favorite artists who support this bill, so there is plenty of star power on their side. On the other side, you’ve got guys like me, trying to scratch out a living playing songs and being goofy on the radio.
As is common, short term monetary gain has now become more desirable than a long-term, symbiotic relationship that has worked well for as long as both of these industries have been in existence. I remember learning in 6th Grade science class about symbiotic relationships. A little fish eats gunk which is caught on a big fish, sometimes even between its teeth. The little fish gets to eat, the big fish gets clean, works out well for all involved. The key is, the big fish has to be smart enough not to eat the little fish in the process.
Apparently, the big-fish recording industry is now dumber than your average Atlantic Spadefish.
The recording industry’s position is that radio is profiting from their material without giving them anything. Oh really? I’ll tell you quite simply what the radio industry gives the recording industry: Free promotion of their product. Think that has no value? Give me a list of songs, anything since the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, that became hits without radio airplay.
In fact, if we hearken back to the days of yore, maybe you’ll recall hearing of a crazy little thing called ‘payola.’ Boiled down to its essence, payola was the record companies paying radio stations to play their songs. Now, why would the industry that now wants us to pay them do that? Could it have been because they could make a ton of money by having a hit record, and needed radio airplay to make that happen?
What benefit does having a radio hit have? People buy hits, that’s what. And hits translate into concert ticket sales. Which translates into merchandise sales. And on and on and on. Hearing the product sells the product, does it not? And where, perchance, do you hear songs you’ve never heard before that you might like to buy?
Okay, Greg, but what difference does it make if radio stations have to shell out more money to record companies? Well, think about this: As a guy who every week decides on what new songs to play, I’m going to be pretty unlikely to want to spend my company’s money for an unproven product. Wouldn’t it be a more responsible financial decision to keep playing songs that I am certain my audience likes? If I have to pay to do so, why would I take the chance on anything unproven? I’d guess many of my contemporaries would feel the same way, and then you’re in a situation where new music never gets exposed. How will the record companies feel about that? Guessin’ they’ll whine about the homogenization of the radio industry.
This short-sighted move, I promise you, will lead you eventually to big radio companies—the ones with hundreds of stations across the country—making national deals for their groups. This will lead you to national playlists for these companies. If you think radio is homogenized now, just you wait.
Let’s be clear: Radio stations already pay performance fees to songwriters and composers. Songwriters and composers do not necessarily have the opportunity to sell records, or go out and perform concerts and sell merchandise, because they are not being promoted free of charge by radio stations as artists are.
Record companies have sent out thousands of gold records to radio stations. Why? To thank radio stations for helping them sell a ton of records. Now, instead of thanking us for helping them sell their product, they’d like us to pay for the privilege of helping them sell their product.
There are rules on media companies about foreign ownership. There are no such rules on the record companies. So these people are trying to take money that we could spend employing Iowans and ship it to Japan (Sony), England (EMI), or France (Universal). I suppose at least Warner is still a U.S.-based company. Doesn’t really help us here in Iowa though.
I realize that there have been musical artists who have been shorted on money. But who is it that shorted them? The record companies! To this day you have artists suing their record companies accusing them of shifty financial practices. Supporters of this bill say the artists are being treated unfairly. My question is, by whom? As I understand it, if you’re an artist and your CD is sold, you get maybe 10% or at most 20% of the profits. The record companies, who would of course also be making a hefty cut on this new revenue stream as well, make the lion’s share.
I guess I understand why this sounds like a great idea to the music industry. They, like most, are short-term thinkers. Musicians usually have a relatively short window in which to make the bulk of their money, so make it while you can. Who cares if in the future you’ve caused a whole bunch of music radio stations to switch to talk? That’s somebody else’s problem. Who cares if radio stations stop playing unproven music if you’re Sheryl Crow at this stage in her career? She’s got a fine oldies catalog that will still get airplay.
Why wreck a relationship that has been beneficial for all involved for decades? A short-sighted, short-term money grab, that’s why. What I can’t figure out is why I’m surprised.