Thursday, July 19, 2007

Online Music

Category: Opinion

By now, I'm certain you have heard about the debate going on with the RIAA, in essence, trying to price online broadcasting out of existence. I am not by nature a conspiracy theorist, but I certainly smell one here.

I was always under the impression that broadcast royalties were the job of the publishing companies. When I worked in radio, we had BMI and ASCAP stickers on the studio windows. The RIAA does certify sales of albums (gold albums and platinum albums), but paying royalties falls to the record companies (for sales) and publishers (for songwriters). The RIAA hasn't ever been involved in royalties...until now.

What the RIAA has been involved in is getting money. The RIAA petitioned the U.S. Senate to put a "royalty tax" on cassette recorders and blank cassettes in 1982 (this has been extended to blank CDs: if you have a CD burner in your stereo, those will only accept CDs marked music -- which have been slapped with this royalty tax). The RIAA used the lawmakers to block DAT machines from becoming successful. The RIAA also petitioned FM radio stations to stop airing new albums in their entirety. The argument the RIAA put forth was not unlike the modern argument: people were sitting at home with cassette decks, taping the new Tom Petty or Don Henley album off the radio, thereby cutting into sales.

What the RIAA has never taken into account is quality. There are very few albums with stratospheric sales (Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975 by the Eagles has a sales total of over 41 million copies; a Wikipedia list shows only eight albums that have sold over 20 million copies). There's a reason for that, too: for all the music released in all the genres throughout the year, there is a microscopic amount that gets heard by the masses and manages to strike the fancy of enough people to sell well. If you look at the albums that were selling in the millions in the 70s, you'll see they had a common element: they were good, if not great. Even after 30 years, albums such as Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, the Eagles' Hotel California, and Steely Dan's Aja hold a dear place in the hearts of people who bought them when they first came out as well as finding a new audience with people who were not born when the albums were released thanks to nonstop airplay on "classic rock" stations. Yes, I'm tired of hearing the same songs over and over on FM rock stations, but when you DON'T hear those songs 24/7 then hear Who's Next, it dawns on you just why the songs from that album are so overplayed: it's a dang good album.

In his autobiography By the Seat of My Pants: My Life in Country Music, the late Buddy Killen (a country musician and businessman who produced all of Joe Tex's classic soul hits, not to mention the fact that he wrote Tex's last big hit, "I Ain't Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)" in 1977) mentioned that a problem plaguing country music was that modern songs were producing plenty of hits but very few classics. This isn't unique to country, as rock and roll has been suffering the same fate for decades. Therein lies the problem with album sales: much like the one-hit wonders of pop music in the 60s, there is a glut of albums featuring one "can't miss" hit, one possible hit, and eight hunks of junk in the key of G-whiz.

Since the late 70s, the FM rock format has been nailed shut to anything new and fresh. The more unique musical styles get, the tighter that format gets locked down. The Violent Femmes' first album has sold over a million copies (according to Rhino's website, it is the only album that has ever earned a platinum certification without ever appearing on the Billboard Top 200 Albums sales chart), but have you ever heard them on FM rock radio? Of course not, they don't sound like the Journey-o-Styxwagon FM shlock rock formula music. That hardly means they're "unknown," however, as the album sales indicate.

With the advent of satellite radio and Internet radio, bands like the Violent Femmes have been able to find an outlet for getting their music past that locked radio format. And here is where the "conspiracy theory arises in all of this. The Internet radio phenomenon cannot possibly hurt record sales; to the contrary, it can only help as people hear music that they cannot hear on their local FM station that is too busy playing "Night Moves" for the seventh time today. People obviously like John Hiatt's songs, since "Thing Called Love," "Angel Eyes," and even "Sure As I'm Sitting Here" have been hits for others; therefore, people just might like Hiatt -- were they allowed to hear him. The Internet says "yes" to artists that have long had no outlet for their music other than word of mouth, and now that outlet is being threatened by interference from the very organization that claims their mission "supports and promotes our members' creative and financial vitality."

The RIAA might be cutting their own throat here, since they are denying people access to music that might be heard...and liked...and purchased. I cannot help but think that the commercial radio stations, which are sinking in ratings because of their tight playlists that refuse anything new, no matter how good or in demand (Warren Zevon's life-affirming farewell album, The Wind, was certified gold before Zevon died, but even two Grammy awards and appearances by FM rock stalwarts Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne couldn't get Zevon airplay), are secretly gloating over the fact that the RIAA is attempting to shut down radio's biggest competition.

The losers, in the long run, are the performers who are making great music that is getting heard by the tens of hundreds instead of the tens of millions, and the fans who are being deprived of this exciting music.

No comments: