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Paying through the nose -- and the ears 

Noncommercial radio versus the capitalist urge

Wednesday, Dec 19 2001
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For music fans outside the mainstream, live streaming audio has been a godsend. Now a guy in Anchorage can tune in to a college radio broadcast of a norteño program from Albuquerque, or a woman in Alameda can listen to a noncommercial news show from Auckland, New Zealand. The world of sound has become much more accessible: Finally, kids in Podunk, Iowa, don't have to wait till they hit 18 and leave home to discover what MTV won't tell them. The benefits are just as big in burgs like ours, where tall buildings and weak signals can be circumvented with a decent computer connection.

You'd think that Webcasting would make music industry pooh-bahs happy, too, since it enables their artists to reach untold numbers of new listeners, most of whom are young and willing to spend. Unfortunately, the industry has a bunker mentality, driven by its fear of new technology like MP3s and its desire to wring every cent out of artists' publishing deals. Back on Oct. 28, 1998, the major labels won passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which declared that Webcasters must obtain a statutory license in order to broadcast copywritten songs. To be eligible for such a license, the station or individual has to adhere to several ridiculous criteria: They can't play more than four songs by one artist or three songs from one album in any three-hour period; they can't announce any song before it's played; while playing a tune, they have to indicate the artist and album it comes from; and, most disastrously for small noncommercial stations, they must pay large licensing fees.

As is true of most landmark legislation, the DMCA has spent much of its time in court, and thus hasn't taken effect yet. But in August of this year, a federal judge sided with the U.S. Copyright Office and declared that streaming radio stations need to pay royalties for their use of music -- not just currently, but also retroactively. Worried about cost, many college and noncommercial stations shut down their live streams; others, like KUSF-FM (90.3), fell victim to hosts that were afraid to continue Webcasting.

According to Program Director Lisa Yimm, KUSF had a deal in which its host, Nibblebox, paid all its royalty fees. After the ruling in August, Nibblebox discontinued streaming services for its 68 stations rather than risk being socked with large payments, suggesting in an official statement that it needed to negotiate a settlement with the Recording Industry Association of America before continuing. (KUSF is currently searching for a new host; meanwhile, Yimm says she's getting e-mail from all over the world asking why the station's not online.)

There does seem to be some hope on the horizon. Last week, Congress held hearings to discuss changing some elements of the DMCA, an idea brought forth via the Music Online Competition Act introduced by Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) and Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Virginia). MOCA would bring streaming laws in line with traditional broadcasting regulations, as well as make sure that Internet customers can continue to listen to clips of tunes before buying CDs. While the RIAA is against the act, KTRU's Will Robedee thinks it doesn't go far enough. The Rice University station general manager has posted a position paper called "Save Our Streams" (www.rice.edu/cb/sos), which outlines the situation and explains why the representatives should add provisions to protect educational and community stations like his own. He's especially nervous about the fees the RIAA wants to impose. According to one proposal, a station that plays just 15 songs an hour and averages a mere 25 streaming listeners during that time would have to pay $13,140 a year -- a huge amount for nonprofit stations like KUSF. (KQED and other NPR-affiliated stations are luckier; the Corporation for Public Broadcasting brokered a deal with the RIAA in which it agreed to pay for all NPR stations' streams if the RIAA would reduce its fees.)

As for KUSF, Yimm is banking on the idea that the Recording Industry Association of America will institute a sliding scale similar to the one her station uses for paying airwave publishing fees to ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. "We're hoping that there will be a price structure that will allow small, noncommercial, educationally minded stations to keep streaming," she says via phone from the station office. Concerning the policing of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's more draconian rules, Yimm says, "I have a feeling they won't be able to keep people to that. If [they're] going to be very nitpicky about everything, they're going to force everyone out."

If you'd like to voice your support for the Music Online Competition Act and "Save Our Streams," you can send a letter to your local representative via Robedee's site. Otherwise, don't come crying to me when the only sound you hear your computer emitting is a faint mechanical buzz.

About The Author

Dan Strachota

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