Friday, July 13, 2007

Internet Radio Lives To Fight Another Day - And It Will Have To


Many of you probably get through your day at work with a little help from internet radio - I know I do. But what you might not have known is that come Monday, there was an excellent chance that your favorite site or station would have been silent. That's because a few months back, the Copyright Royalty Board raised the costs that internet stations have to pay to SoundExchange, a rights organization that collects royalty fees for musicians and record labels. In other words, the jerks that the idiot record executives pay to rake in the dough.

One of the things that makes internet radio so popular is its diversity. Most broadcast stations occupying the airwaves today are owned by Clear Channel, which controls the playlists nationwide to make sure that "popular", big label music sells. So if your tastes differ from that of the popular kids, you're out of luck. And even if you find a station you like, odds are they'll play a lot of the same artists over and over again. I swear, every classic rock station plays at least one Led Zeppelin and one Rolling Stones song every hour. Haven't they ever heard of too much of a good thing?

Satellite radio is a little better. First off, there are more channels, so there are more opportunities for diversity. Second, the company doesn't control the playlists as tightly, so the DJs are allowed to stray from the mainstream a little more often. But, your choices are still limited, not to mention that you have to buy a new radio and pay a monthly subscription fee.

That brings us to internet radio. In contrast to broadcast and satellite, the variety is almost endless. Like bluegrass? You're covered. Jazz? No problem. Hip-hop folk? You're weird, but I'm sure it's out there somewhere. And to top it all off, most stations are free. There are always banner ads on the webpage, and sometimes there are commercials or trailers to listen to, but there's no separate subscription. All you need is a computer and an internet connection, which you already have if you're reading this. Seems like a good deal. However, this free model means that stations can't pay the same royalty rates that broadcasters with big name sponsorships can. This wouldn't be an issue, except for the fact that music labels are beginning to demand higher royalties from internet radio, since it is seen as a threat to the traditional means of delivering media.

On the downside, the sound quality isn't always top-notch. Thanks to broadband connections, this has gotten better over the years, but some smaller sites still broadcast at a low bitrate. If you're listening at low volumes in the office or through an average set of computer speakers, this won't be an issue. But there are plenty of free sites that offer high quality streams as well, though they usually don't cover quite as many of the smaller genres. Still, you'll find a more varied list of songs than you will on your local stations.

Another shortcoming is the fact that you have to be tethered to a computer to listen to the music. Sure, you can also access the sites through WiFi hotspots, but unless you live in a wired city, you won't be listening to these stations in your car or while out jogging anytime soon.

But these downsides aren't enough to deter thousands of people from logging on to sites like Pandora everyday and enjoying great music. And thankfully, that will get to continue, at least for a little while longer. Earlier this week at a Congressional hearing, SoundExchange agreed not to enforce the new royalty rates, which would have gone into effect this Monday, and instead agreed to renegotiate the rates with the internet broadcasters. What's best about this story, however, is the fact that this was made possible in part by the thousands of internet radio fans that contacted their elected representatives and spoke out about the new royalty rates.

No one wants to deny musicians and record labels their fair share, but that share shouldn't be so large that it puts an entire industry out of business. The labels need to remember that without listeners, their music would be worthless. It's also great to see that when people work together to support something they believe in, real change is possible. The fight isn't over, though. To stay updated, check out the blog by Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora Radio. Today, internet radio. Tomorrow, the world!

11 comments:

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