Jazz On The
Web: Will it dry up?
I am single, live alone, and work an odd newspaper editor's schedule and so, early in the
morning, when I get home from the newsroom, I find it comforting to punch up the Internet
and find some music that suits my mood.
It happens that I live in a kind of radio hell in southwest Florida, where the wee-hours
AM dial features call-in shows about extraterrestrial abductions and conspiracy theories,
and, on the FM side, there are oldies stations that entertain me during the drive home
with songs I already own, and decade-themed stations that trot out music for those quite
younger than I am who already feel nostalgic for the 1970s and '80s, that gross period
when even my beloved rock 'n' roll turned smelly.
The Internet has been a blessing to me, especially by making available those streaming
sites where I can settle into a period or genre, even to a particular instrument or
artist, and have my soul soothed.
But now the federal government of my country has stepped in, and, with its typical crudity
steeped in misundertanding, levied a performance fee against independent streaming
Webcasters, a fee that, traditionally, has not been required of over-the-airwaves
broadcasters, such as AM and FM radio, based on the theory that an artist's work in the
hands of a broadcaster amounts to promotion of the music, as opposed to some imagined
nefarious use when the same music appears on the World Wide Web.
I hasten to add that I am a respecter of copyrights and support the notion that artists
should be paid for their work. But this is not a rule aimed at the file-swapping
enterprises, those who practice the piracy that brought down the notorious Napster, but
rather a tribute exacted for the privilege of promoting an artist's music. It is baffling
to consider how one medium is exempt from the fee and another is subject to it.
So, for me, it is no great leap in logic to infer the powerful lobbying arm of the
recording industry here. An industry that takes advantage of new artists. An industry that
sees itself threatened by a new medium it doesn't fully understand. An industry that has,
historically, delivered up pablum as easily and unself-consciously as a vomiting infant.
And, not so coincidentally, an industry that spends a lot of money in political
contributions to friendly candidates.
But there are other considerations here, as well.
For example, because the U.S. government has decreed this performance fee of .0007 cents
(U.S.) per listener per song (it doesn't sound like much until one multiplies it by, say,
the 14 million hits per month claimed by Live365.com), does it mean that other countries
will follow suit? Are Webcasters that are based in other countries from mine, such as my
own beloved SkyJazz headquarters in Canada, bound by the fee? And, as chauvinistic as it
may seem, I have to wonder if U.S-copyrighted music will disappear from the Web
altogether. If so, there will be a paucity of this exquisite and uniquely American art
available to those of us who live in radio hell.
During my years as a performing musician, I played in dozens of clubs that had signs
posted attesting to the clubs' membership in ASCAP or BMI, the principal organizations
that collect fees to be paid to copyright owners in case my band launched into some
copyrighted material, something we did nightly.
In all those years, my band had but one gig shut down because the club owner had not paid
his fee. And the onus was on him, not the band, because ASCAP/BMI expect that working
musicians will draw on the popular culture for material. Would you pay a cover charge to
see a combo of limited fame who played nothing but original material?
Whether this means that ASCAP/BMI were especially vigilant or especially lax, I cannot
say. It is either a case of letting a purring system work, or overhauling the enforcement
of regulations already in place.
This all smells to me like an antiquated bureaucracy that feels threatened. It doesn't
understand where the Web-based music industry is going. None of us do.
A personal example: as a journalist, I fully understand that my salary is paid from the
revenue generated by the advertising that appears in the pages of my newspaper. As a
practical matter in the performance of my job, those ads are an annoyance, because they
interfere with the space available for my job, which is bringing truth to consumers of
news. But they are necessary in my business. Accusations of sensationalism "to sell
more newspapers" are fatuous, because we couldn't pay the light bill daily on the
amount of revenue generated by single-copy and subscriber sales. As a result, in the
1990s, as more and more newspapers were going online, I resisted the notion, because no
one could demonstrate how such a venture could be profitable. Yet, here I sit in 2002,
able to read virtually any newspaper I want on the Web.
Yes, it means advertising and pop-up ads and all those little annoyances that many
Internet surfers find so bloody inconvenient. But it's a fair trade-off to keep your
favorite music alive. What isn't fair is the special treatment of over-the-air
broadcasters, whose sweetheart deals with the recording industry over the years have
included such things as payola, a scandal that profited two types: unscrupulous DJs and --
mirabile dictu! -- the recording industry.
As technology continues its headlong hurtle into the future, I predict an increasingly
moribund recording industry as we now know it. Who needs Sony or Warner Brothers or
Capitol or Verve when one can burn his own CDs at home, market them on the Web, make them
available to sites such as SkyJazz for promotion and bring joy to listeners on a global
The Internet provides a much more potent forum for music promotion than the limited
signals of radio stations can provide. Indeed, many radio stations have taken to
simulcasting on the Web, but this new fee has driven even some of the favored off the
Internet. Why kill a sweetheart deal?
The ultimate flavor of this questionable dish is fishy, spiced with mendacity, greed and
ignorance. The giant recording industry of my country, a land that loves its freedom,
fears the very freedom we tout. The pity is, the fear is based on the consequences of that
By all means, pay the artists. I'll say it again and again. But do not stifle art by
discriminating against a growing community of Webcasters, most of whom know more about the
music they play than the average pimply-faced disc jockey not old enough to remember The
Beatles, yet presumes to offer erroneous information about the music over the public
airwaves. I've heard it time and again. It stinks. And the broadcasting giants should be
Internet radio should be free of that discrimination. The art, the artists, and their
fans, would be better served.