Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Day of silence

This is an issue that initially looks like it mostly concerns the US, but in the interlinked world the concept of "local issue" is fast becoming meaningless, especially if it is about the internet itself.

Saying "music and the internet" usually conjures images of the pre-legit Napster or other P2P networks and sharing and copying songs without paying for it. This was supposed to bankrupt the whole music industry, but of course the new low-or-no-cost delivery channel that reaches more people than brick&mortar record stores ever could has actually boosted the earnings of record companies. CD sales are down, but it is only because CD is losing out to digital files as a format, just like 8-tracks, cassettes or vinyls did earlier. Selling music over the internet has become a huge business, and while the file-sharing is still popular it is paling in significance to the power of this new marker place.

In spite of this, and probably at least partly due to the archaic nature of the copyright laws (Kemppinen talks about these things with so much more experience and knowledge that I won't even try) the issue of digital rights and enforcing them stays on top of the agenda. The record companies have used various dubious DRM-methods in ensuring that copies of their content can not be circulated freely. These methods usually have two defects: they only make the lives of those people difficult who bought the legit copy - these have little or no effect to professional piracy. Second, they tend to infringe the rights that consumers have, including the right to make copies for own personal use and for close friends. The industry therefore has a track record (no pun intended) in looking after its own interests without consideration of the consumer's rights, or even the artists themselves. Their latest "lobbying victory" is no different. This time the target are net radios and performance royalties the weapon of choice.

Of course the musicians, composers and even the record company people deserve their salaries. In addition to getting a cut from the sales, get paid for the gigs, they get compensation when their music is being played on TV or in the radio. The rates of these royalties are now the hot debate.

In the US, only the satellite radios and internet radios need to pay performance royalties for the music they play. In March, the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) ruled to change the formulae they use to determine the rates of these royalties. The new tariffs mean that most small internet radios will die. The royalty rates they are paying are already clearly higher than for other types of radio, and the increases over the coming 5 years will be 300 to 1200 percent depending on the size of the netcaster - the smaller stations would suffer the largest rises. Interestingly, the largest boys in the radio business, the traditional FM/AM broadcasters, don't have to pay performance royalties at all.

A quick look at iTunes Radio, or a quick googling will show the fascinating plurality of the internet radios. Many of these are providing niche services, and all are enriching the "soundscape" that is pretty dull now that most old-fashioned radio broadcasters are using playlists rather than proper DJ's, and are playing the the same stuff over and over again. With the netcasters you still find the enthusiasm and style that the "pirate radios" had when rock music wasn't tolerated in the national broadcasters' wavelengths. Many of these providers are making conscious and very welcome efforts to introduce less-known musicians, bands and songs to the public.

One of these is Pandora, which plays you music in the style of those artists and songs that you've fed in. While this is a very interesting way to stumble in to bands and artists that are close to your taste, my favourite netcaster is Radio Paradise, based at Paradise, CA. It's a no-ads 24h radio that plays an interesting and eclectic selection of music from classical to jazz, to rock and pop. This station will probably be one of those that die as a result of this ruling. This is why I'm supporting the "Day of Silence" campaign today, which aims to overturn the decision. The US internet radios, including the ones owned by giants such as Yahoo and Viacom are silent today, to highlight their importance and give a glimpse of the possible consequences of this unfair ruling.

Interestingly, in Finland, this very same day, the big radio broadcasters are re-opening their parallel netcasts. This follows a deal between the radio union and the organisation that represents artists and composers. The issue was exactly the same as in the US now. In the typically incomplete story by the Taloussanomat, they fail to mention that this is of course not the first time internet radio is introduced to Finland (although that's what the headline suggests). As many commentators of that post (and there I was, saying such nasty things about them just a couple of posts ago...) point out, the net radios were practically killed in Finland by outlandish compensation claims by the rights organisation, some time ago, and now after this deal all the small ones are still staying down, but the big, multinational, playlist-driven radios are again able to deliver their stuff both via air and the net.

Save the diversity.

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