In Case You Missed It….


(By Deborah Parenti) I wish I had a quarter for every time I walked through a station lobby and saw an artist sitting patiently with a label rep, waiting to see the program director. Many were eager-eyed, talented hopefuls riding on the chance that the station PD would hear in his or her latest release a chart-topping prospect. Some had a few hits already under their belts but were aware that consistent airplay was key to continued success and remaining “top of mind” and a “must add.” And there were the occasional well-established multi-platinum seller who had been around long enough to understand that competition is always nipping at your heels.

It’s been a relationship that has developed over the years, one grounded in mutual admiration. An acoustic concert in the conference room with pizza, soda, and enthusiastic staffers — what’s not to love?

I have tremendous respect and admiration for music and musicians. They are a special and talented breed, and I have been fortunate to know and be close to a few of them. My late brother was a gifted guitar and piano player. I have numerous friends who play in bands, some professionally.

In a perfect world, there would be no “struggling artists.” They would be able to make a living solely from the art they create in whatever form that art takes. Of course, unknown musicians, hungry painters, and struggling sculptors first must have exposure. For musicians, that includes radio stations. For artists and sculptors, it involves knocking on the doors of galleries and other art venues. But those galleries don’t pay artists for the space. Instead, they usually seek a commission on the canvases they sell because, like everyone, they have to make a living too. Sound familiar?

So while “corporate radio” certainly could do more to help new talent, paying artists on top of PRO fees and other station overhead that keep those on-air lights flashing is probably not going to get new talent more airplay. In fact, it might work in reverse, perhaps even diminishing that opportunity as stations become more inclined to play it safe by sticking with sure hits. Or stations may drop music formats entirely in favor of lesser fees or free talk.

In part that is because of the approximately 15,000 radio stations out there, less than 2,000 are in the hands of “corporate radio.” And while the big players are certainly influential in markets across the country, that leaves an awful lot of stations that are not as likely to be on what many assume to be “autopilot.” Whatever the ownership, there are thousands of stations out there that are real partners in their communities, and we all know what that means when there is a local disaster — or a long-term pandemic. That’s also a commitment all those streaming services can’t touch in the same way radio does. But it costs money to maintain that level, any level, of service. It takes revenue to pay staff, licensing and FCC fees, rent, maintenance and repair, promotion — and the list goes on.

Ever hear the saying about “robbing Peter to pay Paul”? It’s apropos here when considering all the players involved in music, musicians, airplay, and licensing.

Major labels have been enormously influential in greatly limiting what’s considered “popular music.” It is estimated that over the past decade, major label artists released more than 90% of all top 10 songs. That kind of power implies an enormous influence over what kind of music is played and subsequently makes the charts. It’s what music industry insiders refer to as the “blockbuster strategy,” where the primary investment rests in a handful of extremely profitable artists and albums.

As we continue to peel back the layers of this onion, we uncover yet another dynamic: streaming services.

Two years ago, Spotify introduced Marquee. Marquee is a program that allows labels to purchase “in your face” pop-up ads that heavily promote a new record or artist. In a Rolling Stone article, George Howard, a professor of music business at Berklee College of Music, compared it to major labels paying for the best displays in record stores. “All this does is continue what payola always has done: the major labels, which have the most money and the most frequent releases, get the most play, consolidating the amount of art that is put out there,” he said.

A year ago, Spotify announced yet another program, this one based on labels and rights holders taking up to a one-half cut in royalty rate for songs “that Spotify would then place into the ‘radio’ algorithms it recommends to listeners,” according to a March 2021 article in Wired. “The platform’s ‘Discovery mode’ isn’t technically payola. But it’s payola by any other name: the exchange of money, in this case reduced royalties, for promotion in a product listeners believe is influence-free.”

While the top seven artists on Spotify each earn around half a million dollars per year from streaming on the service, according to the article, Spotify royalties pay the bottom 99 percent of artists an average of $25 annually. Trichordist, a blog dedicated to protecting the rights and interests of musicians, artists, and other copyright holders, estimates that an average midsize independent label can expect to make around a third of a penny per Spotify stream.

Of course, radio and streaming services are not based on the same business model. One of them is highly regulated — and it’s not streaming.

That record labels have always taken the largest share of the pie is understood and a given. Their outlay is critical to the endgame. But with streaming grabbing a piece of the pie — something radio doesn’t do — there’s even less money left for musicians.

Therein lies a major problem, and maybe it should be the starting point for addressing musician compensation before adding one more financial burden on radio stations already facing more competition than ever before from digital platforms — not only for audience but for advertising dollars. While some of radio’s pain may indeed be self-inflicted, especially in terms of audience competition, even the best-sounding stations face Google, Facebook, and a host of competitors whose metrics have proven to be more and more suspect, and unfettered by regulation, have taken a bite out of broadcast revenues.

“Fair play” can’t be fair if the playing field isn’t level. But that won’t happen if anyone sits out the game. Before radio finds itself in an 11th inning with the bases loaded, every group and station need to pitch in and make their voices heard.

The Local Radio Freedom Act, a resolution the NAB is lobbying for in Washington, opposes any new performance fee, tax, royalty, or other charge on radio. As we go to press for this issue, the resolution has 198 co-sponsors in the House and 24 in the Senate. If your representatives in Congress are not on board, it’s time to let them know not only that radio needs their support, but why.

Let’s do this!

Deborah Parenti is Publisher of Radio Ink. She can be reached at [email protected]


  1. Deborah’s article really shows the radio side of the equation and why radio should not be taxed for music airplay. The responses show the passion that this topic ignites. Canada has had a somewhat similar regulation that they operate under, but the money is delivered directly to the artists, and isn’t another source of income to offset the costs of producing, distributing or paying off the advance that an artist receives. I think that creates the question that many of us in radio have. Will the artist see the money? It would be foolish for radio to not acknowledge that, if you’re a reporter to the trade charts, the labels do provide great support to radio stations that play their artists music. The label relationship is important to Mediabase and BDS Reporters. The smaller market, non-reporters, often have to buy songs on-line to play. Think about that. It’s not a one-size-fits all world. The problem is that, despite the erosion of audience due to increased competition, radio still makes “hits.” The labels and artists need radio to be successful. Even the megastars need radio, or else they become forgotten. Great article, Ms. Parenti.

  2. Deborah….

    Every once in a blue moon someone hits the nail on the head, or knocks it out of the park if that’s a better suited cliche’, and you have certainly done that here.
    It’s my belief that the radio audience has changed considerably over the couple of decades. Appealing to the 18 – 34 group isn’t working anymore. Probably better to program to a higher demo that’s spending and controlling most of the money. Give us something that is different from what is currently available musically…we’re all tired the corporate rock sound whether it be Pop, Classic Gold, Country or whatever. Give me something I can sink my teeth into, teach me something I didn’t know, play something I’ve never heard before. Don’t be afraid of being different, I know it’s all about the money but I’m thinking you just might find that vein of gold out there on the bleeding edge but, you actually have to go there to find out. Say what you will but, word of mouth is still the very best way to have the word spread throughout the community. Give “struggling artists” the exposure they deserve. Major labels are quickly going the way of the dinosaur, a path that didn’t then and isn’t now going to end particularly well.
    Again…Deborah thank you for your thoughts…best article I’ve read in this rag for years.

  3. I encourage everyone in our industry to not only read Deborah’s article but to also act by reaching out to their local congress and senate representatives. The Local Radio Freedom Act is so vital to our future.

    Great piece!

    Bill Wilson
    Chief Executive Officer
    Townsquare Media Group

  4. Great piece Deborah!
    We will be reaching out to our Reps & Senators.

    James Derby
    Chief Strategy Officer/Dir. of Programming
    Federated Media/Federated Digital Solutions
    Mobile 574-370-2472
    Office 888-333-6133

  5. “Amazing work. Great angle. Great solution.
    Only a few write ups catch my attention. Maybe one a month. Maybe out of those, I only reach out to the writer once a year.
    I really hope more people discuss this topic.
    Here are some thoughts I had –
    Wouldn’t it be good to give artists a better payoff for being on the radio vs streaming.
    What if larger corporations paid more for fees and the mom and pop stations, not so much.
    I know radio still works because it’s tough to get on the radio. If radio wasn’t a contender, everybody could get a song on the air.
    I hope to see more folks fighting the good fight.”

    Cory Daniels


  6. I enjoyed your oped today on the pay for play issue. Wanted to drop you a note with a couple of other thoughts that I’ve had since the very beginning of this issue that I think are pertinent.

    The truth is we already pay for the use of the music because we pay ASCAP/BMI…etc. If we get hit with a royalty to pay artists, we will be asked to pay for the same thing….twice! The example I always use is buying eggs at the supermarket. You go to the supermarket and buy a dozen eggs. You pay at check out. But you are not asked to then send a check to the farmer whose chickens produced the eggs. Radio paying composers goes back to the days when there were studio orchestras playing music. There is actually no relationship between composers and radio anymore. Since we are already paying composers, artists should seek their performance royalty from the composer, who wouldn’t be earning any money if the artist wasn’t performing their song. If they want to discuss performance royalty, then bring all the parties to the table, not just the one whose already paying.

    Second, if we are going to get hit with a performance royalty, then payola needs to be legalized. We ought to have the right under a performance royalty system to charge artists if they want A positions, or charge them for guarantees of minimum plays etc.

    Back to the grocery store, we’d just use that model where they not only carry a company’s products, buying them wholesale from the company, they often turn around and charge the company for specific shelf heights, or endcaps, etc.
    Just my thoughts.

    Jay Meyers
    President and CEO
    Broadcast Management and Technology
    [email protected]

  7. If there is ANYTHING in radio that gets my dander up, it’s this.

    I’m just a nobody, working small-medium markets in my 40+ year career, but I remember how it used to be. When I first got into radio in 1978, the record reps, usually one step up from a Payday Loan Salesman, would come in to the see the MD/PD and would do abut anything to get their records played, including things from unethical to outright illegal. They knew that stations playing their records would generate interest in the public going to K-Mart, (Copps in Madison WI where I grew up), Record Bar, Sam Goody’s, Tower, you name it, and buy the 45’s, LP’s, cassettes or 8-tracks. You never heard boo about lack of compensation for artists in those days. Then came the digital age: Napster, Limewire, Kazaa and the rest, where folks illegally downloaded music. Record companies desperately tried to shut them down, and it eventually morphed into Spotify, or my favorite, Apple Music. Nobody was buying music at the record stores who went out of business.

    But, for the most part, it’s still radio stations that make their listeners aware of new music. We still take requests, and God knows we pay our fair share of publishers’ licensing fees.

    But the fact is, when the slimy record reps with their satin band jackets came into the station to push their labels’ artists to the MD/PD, you didn’t hear squat about us spongeing off artists’ labors. We sure as heck never sponged off their profits from concerts. WE are the conduit. Yes there’s Spotify, etc., but radio is still the pipeline for artists. And when I hear an artist like Taylor Swift, just as an example, buying a $20 million dollar home in Malibu, the argument that we’re starving the artists to death just doesn’t wash.

    My lowly two cents’ worth.

    Mark Ward
    Director of Marketing/Digital Content Manager
    Cumulus Radio Station Group | Tri-Cities

  8. Deborah,

    What a terrific op-ed piece in today’s Radio Ink headlines! Thank you for boiling down the issues on Fair Play-Fair Pay in a way that almost any broadcaster can easily understand—and for calling on the industry to get our co-sponsorship numbers on the Local Radio Freedom Act over the 218 number in the House.

    I loved your point about how paying artists on top of PRO fees might not get new talent more airplay and could work in reverse. The fact is, if we’re going to have to pay the same fees to play an established artist as we pay to play some unknown one, most stations are going to opt for the established artist every time. And how does that help the starving, unknown artists that this is supposedly all about?

    Great job on the piece. I hope everyone reads it.

    Bill McElveen
    Alpha Media

  9. Every second of air time costs money. At KCAA, we have survived to this point by viewing ourselves as a service, and we provide the best service possible for the lowest rate and we do it while serving the public interest and combining those two factors is a daily challenge.
    The music royalty system is outdated and rotten to the core. The only way I know to reform it is to replace it with blockchain technology so the rewards of a recording or a concert can accrue directly to those who earned it. As an example, by use of an NFT, a “non-fungible token” that represents the recording or the event exclusively could be utilized. The new system must be immutable so the blood suckers and other parasites have nowhere to feed.

    • Totally agree with rotten to the core statement. Just look at SoundExchange. What a rip-off. So our station is forced to pay $1000 upfront and do all their accounting paperwork. This year my “royalty liability” from streaming is about $300. Most of our streaming audience is listening to our high school games and our farm talk shows, the music is minimal. That remaining $700 I paid? Oh that is non-refundable. That doesn’t go to the artists, just the CEO of SoundExchange. So in effect, I’m paying triple the rate for streaming royalties, while those that use more than that first $1000 just pay the difference. And what does NAB say about that? Nothing. They are more worried about having some non-binding resolution signed that means nothing. Then there is GMR, another ripoff. How many more of these groups are going to show up before something is changed?

      • NAB does have a lot to say about this.

        They litigated against SoundExchange to the tune of multiple millions of dollars before the Copyright Royalty Board. But despite months making the case, sometimes in court you get what you ask for, sometimes you don’t. The minimum fee increase was definitely not what the industry wanted. The minimum fee not rolling over effectively raises the rate on small stations.

  10. “But it’s payola by any other name: the exchange of money, in this case reduced royalties”

    Great point. This was something the RIAA proposed ten years ago in its push to get its new royalty forced on radio. They offered a discount on label royalties for new releases. Then someone pointed out that’s payola. Whoops!

    As far as I know, federal payola laws only apply to broadcasters. Not streamers or satellite.

    • Agree 100 per cent. Radio stations are hammered by FCC fees, ASCAP, BMI and other royalty fees, and operating a radio station has overhead with salaries, office expenses, transmitter and antenna system maintenance, software, and more. Small market stations pay FCC fees at the same rate large market corporate stations do. Presence of small market stations in communities they are licensed to contribute more to local radio than some high power corporate entity with no community presence and operations many miles away.

      • And don’t forget the other big issue currently being raised by broadcasters: We pay our annual, no-excuses fees, which the digital and social media companies do not. In other words, at the FCC, broadcasters are subsidizing their non-community-based, for-profit competitors. Umm…what’s wrong with that picture?!?!

  11. Deborah’s editorial today is excellent. Most people do not realize that the record companies rake off 50% before we ever start to talk about royalties to artists or writers. You point out very well the difference between regulated and unregulated…but the public does not get it and does not care.

    Few people recognize that in the music industry “everyone gets paid before the writer and artist”. Promoters, Bus companies, stage/lighting services, managers, make-up artists, stage-hands, tour operators, everyone gets paid first. Exception is the really big acts, but they also have to pay everyone.

    You nicely point out that there are only 2,000 corporately owned big stations. They are in a position to negotiate at the largest/highest levels. The smaller stations can not. IN reality, we pay more royalties today than ever before…but it is not all music. Think services and software: traffic/billing, promotional, HD-Ibiquity, Sound Exchange, GMR, Operating Systems, Marketing.

    None of these existed years ago beyond ASCAP, BMI, SESAC. Now there are a host of services that are basically essential that are monthly overhead that we did not face before. What has not changed is our industry’s dependence upon advertising
    as the primary revenue source. Others have subscription revenue and advertising, plus no/limited regulation or community responsibility.

    The community responsibility is the key to our future and current success. This is the difference between major market and small market as we work in the broadcast and digital world for localism.

    Bud Walters
    Cromwell Media Group


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