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Like A Dinosaur, Big Radio Stubbornly Refuses To Evolve
This week, the sequel Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will roar into theaters, wowing audiences with another thrilling story that demonstrates why it's always a really bad idea to clone dinosaurs. But last week, a different kind of dinosaur announced a really bad idea of its own.
In the 25 years since the original Jurassic Park was released in 1993, the music ecosystem has changed dramatically. Back then, traditional AM/FM radio was the only option for consumers who wanted to listen to their favorite music. Today, the options are endless. Music fans can turn to Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, Amazon, Apple, YouTube, and countless other new digital radio services.
These services use different formats and business models to bring music to fans. And while each new platform has sometimes presented new challenges for artists and songwriters, for the most part the creative community has worked constructively with these emerging services to ensure that creators are properly compensated for their work. That's how we helped produce the Music Modernization Act, which is moving through Congress now with unprecedented consensus.
Unfortunately, there's still one industry that's stuck in the past: broadcast radio. As Jeff Goldblum's Jurassic Park character, the skeptic mathematician Dr. Ian Malcolm, puts it in the original film, "If there is one thing the history of evolution has taught us it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers. … life finds a way."
But instead of evolving and adapting to the new music market place, "find a way" means something entirely different for the big radio companies represented by the National Association of Broadcasters. For Big Radio, "find a way" means asking the government for special favors to protect and even expand their old, tired business models.
On June 15, the NAB sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission asking them to change the current ownership caps that have been in place since 1996. These caps limit how many radio stations any one company can own in any particular geographic market. In an era where media consolidation has resulted in homogenized radio playlists and reduced local ownership of broadcast stations, NAB wants to enable big media conglomerates to buy up even more local stations.
According to the NAB, they need the government's help to "ensure their financial viability today and into the future." Set aside for a moment that it's not the government's job to prop up yesterday's format. NAB leaves out the fact that the government has already given them a huge competitive advantage over their rivals.
Broadcast radio is still the only radio format that does not recognize a performance right for the use of sound recordings. That means they pay nothing to the artists who created the music that fuels their billion-dollar industry. And they're the only radio platform that enjoys this exemption. Internet radio pays artists. Satellite radio pays artists. Cable radio pays artists.
In their letter to the FCC, NAB acknowledges that it doesn't make any sense to treat these platforms differently: "Consumers may not know or care where Sirius XM, Spotify or Pandora are headquartered, but they know that they can listen to them in their cars, in their homes and in their offices — exactly where consumers can listen to AM/FM radio and where advertisers can reach those consumers."
So, if these platforms are all treated the same by the consumer, why aren't they treated the same in the law? If NAB really wants to level the playing field, they should start paying artists for their work just like every other radio platform does.
Ironically, NAB's favorite argument against paying performance royalties is the false assertion that paying such royalties would hurt local radio stations and force them out of business. But these are the same local radio stations that NAB wants to eliminate by tossing out the FCC media ownership caps.
Their position on media ownership demonstrates that they don't really care about local radio and never have. It's another reason why the Local Radio Freedom Act, the non-binding resolution that the NAB peddles to Congress every year, is simply a misleading distraction. Frozen in amber, big radio just wants to wring every free advantage they can out of the government to breathe new life into their fossilized market position.
In Jurassic Park, Dr. Malcolm admonishes the owner of the theme park. "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." That's good advice for the FCC as well. Until the NAB works with the music community to bring radio into the modern era, the agency should resist the urge to prop up an old dinosaur. Instead, they should leave the bad ideas on the big screen with the new dinosaurs.
(Todd Dupler is the Senior Director of Advocacy & Public Policy for the Recording Academy.)