Radio airplay is “a form of piracy”

“If you drive a car, I’ll tax the street;
If you try to sit, I’ll tax your seat;
If you get too cold, I’ll tax the heat;
If you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet.
‘Cause I’m the taxman;
yeah, I’m the taxman.”

The Beatles, Taxman

We’ve seen the recording industry pull a lot of bizarre stunts in the past few years. And I don’t mean just suing 12-year-old girls for downloading music, but things like suing auto-repair shops for playing the radio too loud (at which point the music apparently becomes a “public performance”), or filing “cease and desist” letters because a tiny portion of a song appeared in the background of a home video on YouTube (okay, that was just Prince, but still). But now, the industry appears to be arguing that the entire radio industry is effectively based on piracy — and no, I am not making this up. I wish I was.

“It’s a form of piracy, if you will, but not in the classic sense as we think of it,” said Martin Machowsky, a musicFirst spokesman.

The argument (if I can call it that) according to musicFirst is that the radio business has pretty much gotten a free ride since the legislation legalizing it was adopted in the 1960s, because it doesn’t have to pay musicians for the right to play their music — around which the radio stations sell advertising, etc. — the way that public venues such as bars and department stores do (radio stations compensate publishers and songwriters, but not artists). The industry is arguing before the U.S. Congress that this historical injustice should be avenged by slapping the radio business with what amounts to a performance-based tax, which it prefers — for obvious reasons — to call a fee.

As Mike Masnick notes at Techdirt, the argument that the radio business has been somehow getting away with murder by playing music for nothing cleverly avoids dealing with the concept of “payola” or “pay to play,” which was systemic in the early days of radio and allegedly still occurs even now. If radio play wasn’t worth anything in terms of driving demand for recorded music or live music, then why would producers and record companies be so eager to pay disc jockeys to play their artists?

It’s possible that the record industry’s argument — albeit unstated — is that radio is no longer any good for driving demand for recorded music or live music (which is absurd, but let’s play along) and therefore broadcasters should have to pay because they are getting something for nothing. But whose fault is that? If the record industry can’t find a way to turn a profit from the kind of free promotion that radio airplay provides, that’s hardly the fault of broadcasters.

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