On Facebook today, I read the post of an indie radio owner asking an interesting question, and as much as I wanted to reply directly, I thought there were many aspects to this that couldn’t be summed up in a simple reply to his post.
The question was along the line of “is it fair some play by the rules while others advance by flying under the radar?“ This was referring to the fact that this particular radio was licensed (a laudable move, really, and much appreciated by the artists being played there) and was competing against others who aren’t, and thus are playing music without paying a dime of royalties. This is more common than you would think, whether it’s actual 24/7 radios or simple podcasts.
The thing is that these radios/podcasts are telling artists that they can’t afford paying any royalties, but that this is exposure anyway. That’s right. It’s the good old “exposure bucks” yet again! Now as much as I don’t like the idea of radios using that trick, I believe there are 2 distinct kind of radios that are in this case.
Case 1 / the crooks:
1/ these guys actually paid a lawyer to make sure they will own your music and will be able to do anything they want with it,
2/ they will profit from your music and you will not. Sometimes they ask you to click a checkbox saying you agree to these terms which are usually miles long and in fine prints, sometimes they will even send you a PDF to sign and return.
In any case, you know you don’t want to go there.
Case 2 / the little guys
Here is the little guy in his garage, who is passionate about music, and effectively doesn’t have any money to pay royalties, doesn’t have any sponsor and is doing it on his free time for the love of it. He might not have such a reach anyway, and there’s not even any terms or conditions to be found on his site, he might not even know of his obligations. Now, I know it’s not an excuse, but I consider that it’s different from case 1 and that he’s not really a big threat to you. Most likely his reach will not be that big and he will probably not bullshit you about the exposure, he just wants to play some music. In this case, I’d say why not? I mean it’s really up to you to see if you want to support this little guy or not. Because that’s what you will be doing by submitting your music to him, and maybe pointing some fans to his show. Perhaps later if this guy gets bigger, will you poke him gently and tell him that he should do the right thing...
Case 3 / the monsters
Now, as much as I hate the scammers of case 1, and how they will undoubtedly misuse your music and profit from you one way or another, it’s not even close to the biggest crooks of them all, the streaming platforms. The one that actually make billions of profit for their shareholders when artists see pennies, you know the ones… And yet, unsigned artists pay (via distribution platforms) to be featured there, and expect the famous exposure bucks that are really nothing more than a pipe dream, when these platform’s "search and discover" algorithm are bend towards the mainstream and big labels’ music.
So I believe the most immediate threat to indie radios are not the little guys, not even the scammers, although they could be perceived as such, but really these monsters who are hell bent on creating a monopoly and dictate what you should listen.
And BTW there’s another thing to know about internet radios competitors: did you know that in the US, terrestrial broadcasters (AM or FM stations) do not pay performers or sound recording copyright owners; they only pay the songwriters. That’s another unfair advantage that works against indie internet stations.
Now will the Music Modernization Act that just passed as law in the US make a difference there?
Not in the slightest.
There are indications that a lot of unclaimed royalties (for songs which are not registered directly with the US Copyright Office) will go to a black box that will later be redistributed based on market share, meaning that the 3 big labels will get the lion share again. They will also have a seat on the non-profit government agency that will create the database related to the owners of the mechanical license of sound recordings, so they will have little incentive to find the authors of these unclaimed royalties, because in the end it will go in their pocket.
It was already the case with millions of address unknown NOIs (Notice Of Intent of usage) filed by streaming services, which are cases where these services claim they didn’t find the owner of a song they use. There is actually a search tool you can use to search this database (you'd have to register there, but it's free to use) You will see that Spotify for example can’t always find Ed Sheeran or Bruno Mars or The Beatles. Doesn’t seem to me they are looking very hard…. Do you think they will put much effort in finding Ghostly Beard??? (Turns out I have a few NOI in there!).
Show me the money!
Finally, one final fact that is troubling about the internet radios licensing. After being played on some of these radio who claim to pay royalties , I have yet to receive one cent from SoundExchange or SOCAN, and this is a year and a half after releasing my first EP which was widely played… So what’s up with that?
My guess is that although the radios are paying the royalties, these are just going into another giant pot and redistributed based on market share again. If that’s not the case, then I should at least have seen records of what’s been played even if it did earn me portions of a cent…
So where does the money go?