I want to have as many as I can not only to give my readers as many choices as possible but also for my own purposes. I want to watch something when it inevitably happens. That something is how many of these stations will still be streaming or even exist at all in their current format after the implementation of what opponents like myself call the “performance tax” against radio stations and Web-based streaming services. For those unfamiliar with the “performance tax,” what it means is that a radio station has to pay a small fee to an artist’s record company every time a song is played on the radio or streamed over the World Wide Web. This has never been done in the now 80-year history of the commercial, government-regulated era of radio in the United States of America.
This performance tax is controversial to say the least and has actually split the music community. Many of my favorite people including some that should know better like Bob Weir and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead support the “performance tax” and feel it is only right to receive a little something for their work. Others share my view that what little most radio stations make (even the big conglomerates) off of playing songs like Truckin’ for the zillionth time pales in comparison to what the artists make back in the free publicity they receive especially if they are still touring (which is where the real money has been made in music for quite some time now and nobody should realize that better than the likes of Weir and Hart who hardly ever sold many records in the grand scheme of things but still live lives of luxury thanks to their great concert tours…Bob and Mickey, I still love you guys as much as ever but I can’t stand with you on this one).
While I encourage everybody in the United States to write multiple letters to their Senators and Congressional representatives to oppose the bills attempting to implement this fee, the odds do not look good. Still reeling from their mistakes in ignoring the spread of the Internet (not to mention too many consecutive years of putting out and promoting really shitty music), the major record companies are throwing lots of campaign contributions around in order to recoup their losses through this “performance tax.”
The fear regarding this new fee imposed on all US broadcasters and netcasters is that it will even further restrict already tight playlists and make it even more difficult for new artists to break through and have the chance at making it big. Basically, if music radio seems mostly repetitive now, it will get even worse as only the major labels and big artists will have the power to make deals with radio stations to “buy in bulk” and reduce their costs for playing songs. This could also put more power into the hands of the big radio conglomerates as smaller radio groups, independent stations, public stations, and netcasters will not be able to afford the fees, thus forcing them to either become talk stations (like we need any more of those repetitive pieces of steaming nut-job shit on either side of the political spectrum!) or to simply hand their license back to the Federal Communications Commission and go silent. After all, in this economy where many small commercial stations and colleges can no longer afford to pay to host a website for their stations, how will they pay for the thousands of songs normally played in any one week?
However, like many of their ill-conceived plans over the past 30 years, this plan could come back to bite the major record labels hard and usher in the next musical renaissance for which many of us have been waiting since the all too brief wave of good grunge music out of Seattle ended the hair band era. If station owners play their cards right and enough small broadcasters and netcasters get organized, they can all just simply refuse to play any song that requires payment of the “performance tax.” Many stations, especially Web-based ones, do a form of this already in order to keep from having to pay fees to the big publishing rights organizations, ASCAP and BMI. In addition, it’s certainly not like there is a shortage of really good “independent” music in any style that a station owner would want to have programmed. In today’s anti-everything world where even many self-proclaimed “conservatives” have lost faith in today’s corporate culture, the lack of initial familiarity with artists on a no-performance-tax station could be more than made up for by proper promotion of this “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore” philosophy sweeping the country.
Sure, there will be a longing by a portion of the country for the “hits,” but how long will they be able to stand it when the playlists get down to a mere handful of songs? After all, even the biggest Aerosmith fan can only stand Dude Looks Like a Lady so many times before he or she wants to hear something else (or, in my case, vomit). It will be tough on people that still cannot get enough of the same old songs by the likes of Aerosmith, Linkin Park, Billy Joel, or Toby Keith and that does indeed suck because “hits” have a good place and serve a great purpose especially when in a diverse group of people where it is better to have music that is familiar so nobody feels completely left out of what is going on. However, the idea of rebuilding radio and reviving the industry has to be aimed once again at the young folks just as it was when rock and roll first hit in the 1950’s, again with the “underground FM” stations of the late 1960’s, and yet again with the “modern rock” stations of the early 1980’s. They are still the biggest music consumers plus the most desired demographic by advertisers and are not going to care one hoot about not hearing older hits and established artists because, just like every generation, they need to have something of their own. That might sound pretty shitty to the 40-ish and over portion of the crowd that reads this blog but, if done correctly and enough stations refuse to play performance-taxed music, the tax will go away and the “hits” will come back faster than you can pull out your lighter and yell out, “Play some Skynyrd, man!”
However, there is one caveat to this somewhat long shot of playing only non-taxed music working both for station owners as well as their potential audiences. Especially for over-the-air radio stations, they will have to be willing once again to invest in good on-air talent, go back to a “less is more” philosophy on commercial breaks, and convince people that they care about the local community, are connected to it, and will give its audience multiple ways to connect to it themselves both in actual action as well as through social networking websites and services. If the radio stations in the “performance tax” world of the future fail to do these things while continuing to program only to the lowest common denominator and use “voice-tracking” instead of real disk jockeys, they will remain useless in a time and place where most teens and young adults have multiple portable mp3 players that never play a commercial or force one to sit through a song that one does not like. After all, why deal with useless announcements and extra-long commercial breaks when they have no meaning even if an iPod or a service like Pandora sounds almost sterile? This also goes for the college and community-based broadcasters that I see more and more turning to automation and free syndicated programming in order to fill their program schedule all while increasing the length and annoyance factor of their pledge drives.
Thankfully, a complete overhaul of what is played on radio would take care of one thing that has been plaguing it since the mid 1980’s — it’s predictability. One reason that radio can still survive in this era of Internet and satellite radio along with mp3 players is that those new technologies mostly come with no surprises much less anything extra that makes one feel good, special, connected, or appreciated. Sure, those new technologies serve their purpose and I love my iPod and groove over many obscure Shoutcast streams. Yet, if given the chance and done with even the slightest amount of skill, regular radio can still give people that “oh wow” feeling…and it could get even better in a world where almost everybody has to completely reset what they play.
Anyway…it is going to be interesting to watch what happens. When officially finished…well, as much as any one Web page is ever finished…I am guessing that there will probably be somewhere between 135 and 150 stations linked on my Radio page. If the “performance tax” becomes law, will they shrink down to only 50 or even less than 20, or will enough people take the initiative to recreate American radio and have such an explosion of good music of all types (even country!) that my new Radio page will no longer be necessary as almost every city and small town will have at least one good radio station just like it was 1976 again?
In a world where the big beverage companies are at least experimenting with bringing back soda pop made with real cane sugar instead of hydrogenated corn syrup and making them taste almost like they did before the mid 1980’s, perhaps there is some hope.
Still, I encourage you all once again to speak out against the “performance tax.” If “the man” ever existed in this world, he is embodied in today’s major music conglomerates. Stick it to him, and stick it to him hard, folks! This is not just about entertainment, it is about trying to control something that, up until now, has always been free and I don’t just mean that in monetary terms. Nothing would please me more than enough people protesting to block these bills and make this entire blog entry a complete waste of time…not to mention that the whole thing could be a mere pipe dream anyway as passage of the “performance tax” is more likely to result in even less choice and, worst of all, even more commercials to pay for it all as far too many people in the USA have either completely forgotten or never learned in the first place how to think outside of the proverbial box.
To get informed on the issue and learn the best ways to take action, the following link is a great place to start.