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Thursday, May 30, 2024
Video didn't kill the radio star, but Uncle Sam might

Kathy Dittrich

Video didn't kill the radio star, but Uncle Sam might

The most recent chapter in the saga of radio royalties played out earlier his month when more than 400 broadcasters visited Washington D.C. and lobbied Capitol Hill in opposition to the Performance Rights Act. The PRA has passed both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees but has not yet been scheduled for a vote in either body.

The PRA, and the radio royalties proposed by the bill, stand to destroy radio as we know it. Consequently, the controversy and discussion surrounding the proposed royalty fees are not going to disappear anytime soon. For years, radio and the recording industry have operated under the agreement that radio plays, and thus promotes, music free of charge. For 80 years this has been the understanding that the broadcaster and record labels in this country have functioned under. But now, the recording industry is bankrupt, as it has failed to adapt to the new model of music downloading and wants money.

Backed by Hollywood, big celebrities and therefore liberal Democrats, the four big record labels in the U.S. are demanding that radio cough up a considerable chunk of change in order to play their copyrighted music. Dave Black, general manager at WSUM, who recently returned from D.C. where he joined lobbyists with the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, argues that the royalty fees currently proposed in the Performance Rights Act would cripple many radio stations. ""The argument that the Wisconsin Broadcasters made is, if we have to pay these royalties, and for a commercial station it's hefty, it's huge, then we will have to probably lay people off,"" he said Basically, performance royalty fees would force radio stations to lay off workers in order to pad the pockets of the big music industry businesses.

Luckily, a provision has been made for non-commercial radio stations, like WSUM, that would only require such stations to pay $1000 a year in performance royalties. Thanks to this provision Black is optimistic about the future of WSUM in Madison, saying, ""We're pretty lucky, we'd probably be okay; but Whitewater, that's 1/16 of their budget."" Low budget radio stations, like UW-Whitewater's student radio station WSUW, if unable to fork over $1,000 a year to the recording industry, would be forced off the air if the Performance Rights Act were passed. The proposed royalty fee, even the reduced provision for non-commercial radio, would force the closure of small radio stations across the country. And many radio stations able to make the payment would be forced to make difficult budget cuts to do so.

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It's clear that radio has nothing to gain from the Performance Rights Act, but what may be less clear is exactly who does stand to benefit from radio royalties. Supporters of the royalty provision have been attempting to convince the general public that it is the artists who would be rewarded and who would see a big chunk of the royalties collected. Even the New York Times recently reported, ""After administrative fees, the money would essentially be split evenly between the performers and the recording's copyright holder, in most cases a record label.""

Opponents to the PRA, however, paint another picture. Black maintains the performance royalty legislation is a result of lobbying efforts by the recording industry to increase its own coffers and has little to do with ensuring artists get a fair cut of the profits. ""The record labels,"" he says, ""are going to make out like bandits on this, and they are bandits."" He adds, ""They're dirty rapacious bastards, and there is no way we should be feeding their pockets.""

It's difficult to disagree with Black's prediction when the current music industry model awards a mere two to three cents per 99-cent iTunes download to the artist. When it comes to music royalties, record labels have a history of screwing over their artists and Black argues that it would be no different with radio royalties. Artists do not look to gain from the PRA because, as Black explains, ""The recording industry collects the royalties and they decide how much they parse out. They don't open their books, so they may be fairly distributing them, they may not.""

In recent years, success by Radiohead and the band's album In Rainbows demonstrated the consumer's willingness to fairly and generously compensate and reward musicians for their work, while the proliferation of illegal downloading has spoken to the consumer's distrust of and contempt for the recording industry. This is why performance royalties that do not serve artists are unacceptable. They instead seek to increase the profits of the four largest record labels and their respective investors while destroying the quality and diversity of radio in this country.

Luckily, a majority of House members feel this way, and under the leadership of U.S. Rep.'s John Dingell, D-Mich. and Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., opponents to the bill have passed a non-binding resolution, the Local Radio Freedom Act, which as of March 12 has the backing of 258 House members and 27 Senators. For 80 years the radios of this country have played the music they wish to play and in doing so have benefited both musicians and record labels. The record labels should not be demanding money from broadcasters when they are already reaping the benefits of free publicity. Furthermore, the potential harm done to broadcasters in this country, if legislation is passed that demands royalty fees, is far too horrifying to be overlooked.

Kathy Dittrich is a senior majoring in English and French. Please send all feedback to 

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