(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]