(By Deborah Parenti) As the New Year kicks off, one of the most critical economic issues facing radio broadcasters has reared its very ugly head. The licensing fees battle between RMLC, GMR, radio operators, and, now, other licensing organizations, has given a new meaning to the fight — and caught thousands of radio stations, artists, and, at the end of the day, listeners across the dial in the crosshairs.
It’s a convoluted and complicated mess — and every discussion seems to open another can of worms. Some broadcasters worry, and with good reason, that any proposal toward resolution could easily result in other “performance fee”-related issues coming under renewed review. That the best of intentions might lead to even more expensive battles and unsustainable costs.
So it was that John Garziglia’s recent essay for Radio Ink (January 12, 2017) was read by many, including me, with special interest. John provided a succinct and logical explanation of the situation to date. And with it, he raised an intriguing and ambitious, if admittedly untested, proposal. What if all songwriter fees currently paid pre-GMR were put into a common fund and the performing rights organizations, including GMR, were tasked with deciding among themselves how those fees were to be split?
Unfortunately, as John explained later, there is no legal theory or procedure known to him or his associates that would provide a precedent for this sort of action. If one exists, someone needs to identify it.
There are, to be sure, other avenues that could be explored — but this is a tricky issue and could easily open a Pandora’s box as well as exposure to costly legal challenges.
Taking on licensing agencies by withholding payment, for example, even if done by a coalition, would be an expensive and risky proposition. It could be interpreted as collusive, for example. And in any case, it would no doubt need to include the major groups.
Tackling the issue through legislation is another consideration, but one that would have to be approached with eyes wide open. There are legitimate concerns that lobbying for legislation aimed at streamlining songwriter fees could morph into revisiting broader copyright law.
Meanwhile, the RMLC has been working with many stations as a conduit of information and representation. While criticized by some, the organization is probably best suited for leadership and disseminating information concerning a vital issue mired in enough legal nuances and complexities to make one’s head spin – and keep attorneys busy. And although there doesn’t seem to be a clear light at the end of this tunnel, the RMLC has the best-lit hard hat to lead the way.
The issue is not just going to fade like the end of a song track. Stations have until January 31 to decide whether to accept an interim agreement with GMR, keeping in mind that the long-term implications need to be assessed and addressed as well.
What is at stake is too important to the industry. Even setting aside the major groups, some of which have already carved out their own deals with GMR, there are still thousands of viable radio stations that serve communities, employ staffs, work with local advertisers — and play music by new, as well as familiar, artists. If they all start talking instead of playing tunes out of economic necessity, listeners might start walking — away from their radios.
The day the music dies could be closer than we think. And the clock is ticking. January 31 will soon be here.
Deborah Parenti is the Publisher of Radio Ink Magazine and can be reached at [email protected]