Under Siege

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In general, commercial radio is crap. I don’t think I’m the lone voice crying in the wilderness on this one.

Top 40 radio is a cesspool of shallow self-promoters, marketing dreams and tacky, overly sentimental garbage spewed from the mouths of teenage idiots. And I’m not going to give classic-rock stations a pass either. They’ve pared down their playlists so tightly that only a few artists get any real airplay at all. And god forbid they dig deeply into any artist’s back catalog. The situation has gotten so bad, I can’t even listen to it anymore, and it’s even made me literally hate acts I used to dig.

My morning commute consists of either sports-talk radio, NPR or, most often, my own CDs. Turns out, it wasn’t video that killed the radio star. It was Clear Channel.

That said, there are other outlets. College radio is still adventurous, spinning records by underground artists on the cutting edge of music and exploring a wide variety of genres and cool  ethnic music. And there are other options for, as Iggy Pop calls them, “musical thrill-seekers.”

One is satellite radio, which I’m a big proponent of. Little Steven’s Underground is, hands down, the best radio show out there. Another is Internet radio, an outlet that, unfortunately, might not survive if a recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board actually comes to pass.

What it comes down to is, the move will almost triple the licensing fees for Internet radio sites, such as one of my favorites, Pandora. At least that’s the contention of Pandora founder Tim Westergren. In a letter to Pandora users, he writes, “The new royalty rates are irrationally high, more than four times what satellite radio pays, and broadcast radio doesn’t pay these at all.” Now, I’m no Constitutional scholar, and I realize this relates to people, not companies, but wouldn’t the Equal Protection Clause prevent this sort of thing?

Anyway, if this is indeed the case, it is grossly unfair, no matter how well-intentioned the decision may be. Perhaps I’m being naive here, but it does seem that at least some thought in the Board’s decision was given to getting artists the royalties they deserve. But, if that’s the case, why the disproportionate amounts?

“Understand that we are fully supportive of paying royalties to the artists whose music we play, and have done so since our inception,” continues Westergren. “As a former touring musician myself, I’m no stranger to the challenges facing working musicians. The issue we have with the recent ruling is that it puts the cost of streaming far out of range of ANY webcaster’s business potential.”

It seems Web radio people aren’t the only ones taking issue with the Board’s decision. Even artists are rallying against it. San Diego indie rockers, Truckee Brothers, have taken up for the cause by giving away their single, “Mayday,” to Internet radio stations and podcasts for nothing. The wickedly clever part of Truckee Brothers’ plan is this: “Mayday” can only be available online because it is illegal for “terrestrial” radio to repeatedly broadcast the word “mayday.”

According to the band’s Website, “This act of rock philanthropy will circumvent the U.S. Government’s royalty hike that covers all music except for direct deals with copyright holders. The rate hike aims to put Internet radio out of business by charging more in royalties than ad revenue could legitimately cover.”

Cynics among you might call it a crass publicity stunt, given that Truckee Brothers’ new album, Double Happiness (Populuxe) streets May 8. But, to me, that kind of suspicion borders on paranoia.

If you should feel moved to throw your support behind Pandora and other Internet radio stations, visit the Pandora site or go to truckeebrothers.com and sign the petition. As Public Enemy so eloquently put it, “Fight the powers that be!”

(Photos courtesy Truckee Brothers)

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