Radio, Fees and Old Flames

CDM has got yet another discussion going about the proposed bill to pay performing musicians for radio play (currently only composers are supposed to get paid for radio plays.)

That discussion is focused on what’s “fair” between the different contributors to a music recording. It seems the bill may die regardless because as it turns out, surprise, the system used for composers’ compensation is already broken and unfair so adding performing musicians into the current system would only make it equally unfair for everybody. (So in that sense it would be “fair.”)

But it’s difficult to have any discussion about what is fair in the music business when the foundation is so shaky. To me the whole thing is colored dark grey by what commenter Music Fan calls the RIAA checklist.

Billy Corgon and Don Henley are not “artists.” They are barely “people.” They are icons, brand names, in a word: celebrities. That is significant because it is as celebrities, not musicians, that they have broken through the norm and re-re-re-negotiated their enslavement deals with the big labels and actually have a shot at seeing a penny or two if a law like this is passed. Having these guys testify in Congress on behalf of “musicians” is like assuming Coca-cola represents liquid. Mere mortals who are signed to record deals have given away 100% of their rights already just by signing up with the loan-shark big labels so they would never, ever see a penny of radio performance royalty. The only reason session musicians don’t sign away 100% of those rights on the records they play on is because there’s nothing to sign away. If this law was to pass, signing away those rights would be the cost of doing business – i.e. getting to play on the record in the first place. The business practice of big-labels follows the money, not the principled or “fair” or right thing to do.

By way of analogy: unions make sense to me. Workers rights is a gravely important issue. But when unions were 90% mobbed up then the whole discussion was tainted by that. Ignoring those kinds of underpinnings are not doing the workers any good because you want to focus on what’s “fair” for them in one, small technical sliver of a contract negotiation.

A point of interest in the article at CDM was that the key spokesperson they used in favor of the law, is an old buddy of mine, Celia Hirschman, late of KCRW. Celia and I first met in the record industry about 25 years ago. At the time I was very impressed with her and we spent a fair amount of time hanging out. At one point, I was very close to asking her to marry me, or at least move in with me. We hadn’t had any contact with each other in over 20 years when our paths crossed last year and we got together for lunch. The meeting was tenuous, a little awkward (and chaperoned) because, as it happens, she still, as I write this, has no fucking clue who I am — basically, zero recollection of me whatsoever. (fwiw, this is no slight on her — this is all about what an unmemorable, geek I was/am.) But, I digress…

Celia did, and still does, represents the best of the “old” business. She still thinks about artists as people, even if only temporarily on their way to being celebrities. She’s worked (a lot) with second tier recording artists who are big enough to get on the radio, but not big enough to earn any money for themselves while paying the label’s vig on their deal. It’s a lotto culture where she’s at and unfortunately, the system really is corrupt, pretty much, all along the way. This kind of “performance royalty” is supported by the loan sharks in the RIAA because it’s nothing but a win-win – it’s another stream of pure revenue (having to actually pass some of that money on to celebrities like Corgan, Henley and Jay-Z is a small tax) from the radio syndicates they control through barely-legal means of payola and gives them an opportunity to squeeze out the pesky independent radio stations they don’t have control over. Bankrupting those indie stations would be a blessing for the big labels. “Exposure” is only worth it if you control it.

We can talk about “exposure” or “fairness,” but let’s not pretend we’re in a vacuum where musicians, you know, artists, would make a living if only it weren’t for those free-riding radio stations that balk at shelling out.

One thought on “Radio, Fees and Old Flames

  1. John Pazdan

    RIAA checklist:++++++

    Session musicians give away their $ by the “work for hire” clause, but that’s a strange one lately. It used to be that the only thing “copyrightable” in a song was the melody and lyrics. Really, I am not making this up kids! (Victor, back me up..). However with the appearance of Commodore 64′s, that has changed quite a bit, to where a guy does tracks and a singer does the lyrics and umm..singing. There are varieties of course, but the “track maker” often is a principle in the song writing, and gets the $$ as well. So “session musicians” (soon to be less in number than blacksmiths) still won’t get anything..and as Meestar Stones points out, there’s no point at all in this, except for an additional stream to the ever dwindling RIAA slush fund.

    Also agree on the Union observation..I WISH it wasn’t so, but there ya go. And I have been in the musicians union 4 times…

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