The Whining of the Musicians

So, it seems like the cool thing to do lately is complain about how little musicians make in royalty payments. These stories keep popping-up on Facebook and usually feature pictures of bank statements with ridiculously low royalty payments. Next to the pictures are captions like, “Britney Spears only made .15 from ‘Oops!…I Did It Again’ even though it was played on the radio over 23 trillion times!” You’re supposed to feel guilty about how little Britney is making in royalties. So guilty that you consider sending her money ever time you catch yourself singing one of her songs in the car or shower. We’ll discuss why you’re singing her songs in the car or shower another time, but for now you should feel terrible that you are stealing from Every. Artist. Ever.

Of course, no one ever really thought about this until mega-star David Byrne started complaining about it. He wrote an article on Vloggerheads where he adeptly points out that “with its denial of a Performance Royalty to artists, the U.S. stands with a short list of countries that includes: Iran, North Korea, China, Vietnam, and Rwanda.” The point is that denying royalty payments to artists is equivalent to genocide and mass murder. You can’t argue with that. I dare you to try.

I’m sure all of you know who David Byrne is, but for those who don’t you can get your hard facts over at Wikipedia (those guys know everything!). He is most famous for being the front man for the band Talking Heads. He’s a good example of how so many artists are struggling with his paltry net worth of $40 million, which makes him a natural spokesman for starving artists the world over. But I digress.

Byrne sees one problem (artists get small or no royalty payments) and one solution (government needs to pass laws). He presents a one-dimensional argument without answering (or even asking) the relevant questions. How else are musicians compensated? How much does he think artists should be paid? Where is this new money going to come from? He makes this statement: “Music fans wouldn’t be directly affected—it wouldn’t cost them anything. If anything they’d benefit, as some of the artists they like would stand a better chance of having a continuing life in music.” So, how do stations begin coughing up money without affecting the listener? Easy! “Many of those stations are owned by large conglomerates”! Sorry, he doesn’t provide any further information about where the money is going to come from. But you have to admit that’s a pretty ironclad argument. He continues:

…we musicians can expect [conglomerates] to hire lobbyists and propagandists to convince the public and congress that somehow, unlike most of thecountries (sic) in the world that A) musicians can live on the “exposure” their radio play provides and B) these companies won’t be able to make a profit if they are expected to pay a little bit to performers who provide the content that draws listeners.

Well, if that’s what we can expect then I think Mr. Byrne is out of luck. How can he possibly expect our current administration to resist the temptations of lobbyists? Heck, before you know it the conglomerates are all going to be ambassadors!

For those who work in radio, I’ll need to lean on your enormous collective brain to help me understand how this works because there are several things I don’t understand.

He thinks the stations should pay the artists since they “provide the content that draws listeners.” Does this mean that that artists should pay stations who play their music for providing exposure to their music? It seems logical that radio play serves essentially as an ad for the artist. If anything, the artist should be paying stations for the advertisement. Not that you can’t be successful without radio exposure, but radio play makes a huge difference. If radio play generates sales for the album or songs, then commercial airplay should be royalty-free. Paying royalties on commercial airplay would essentially be double-dipping by the artists.

I also wonder about licensing fees that a radio station may already pay. When you buy a CD or purchase music online you are told that the music is for your ears only. If you play the music loud enough that someone accidentally overhears it then you must pay the price for operating a pirate radio station and broadcasting illegally! As far as I know, stations don’t just jump on the internet with their iTunes gift cards and download the playlist of the day. They need to pay for the right to broadcast music. This is often done through a group such as ASCAP, which provides a standard license to broadcast or use music by all of the artists they represent. Where does the money go that is paid to ASCAP (or whoever)? If the artist receives royalties from this organization then receiving royalties directly from the stations would be triple-dipping.

What about digital music? Byrne says that this does not affect internet music since “digital and streaming radio stations already pay royalties to artists.” Pew Research has an article on The State of the News Media that shows some of the trends with new and traditional media. I couldn’t find much about music specifically, but it is increasingly popular to stream music rather than listen to the dial. I doubt this trend will shift, so why is he so concerned about traditional broadcast now? What is David Byrne really complaining about?

When something seems so nonsensical then you can bet there is some other unspoken motivation. In this case, it’s about punishing the so-called “1%”. He wrote an article last October in the Guardian wittily titled “If the 1% stifles New York’s creative talent, I’m out of here“. This is a threat that no one should take lightly. After all, if he leaves New York he may come to your neighborhood, assuming you live among the mega-rich (“which, full disclosure, includes me”, he admits in the article). This whole gripe is about extracting money from those who he feels don’t deserve it. What he fails to mention is that while there may be some very wealthy conglomerates, there isn’t usually a lot of money in individual stations. Adding royalty payments to their list of expenses would mean the end of many stations. Even if it does hit the conglomerates directly, they don’t just absorb the additional costs. Those additional expenses are passed along to the consumer, which means it isn’t quite true when he says, “music fans wouldn’t be directly affected.”

This is a very complicated argument and Byrne does himself and all artists a great disservice by reducing it to nothing more than an attempt to shakedown those he doesn’t like. He further loses credibility by neglecting to mention the RIAA. If he wants to be honest then there needs to be a discussion about intellectual property in the United States. Does he really think our IP laws compare with “Iran, North Korea, China, Vietnam, and Rwanda”? There are some who may say yes, but for other reasons.