A new blog post on Music Think Tank that you can read here:
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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?
A joint interview/conversation with Rods Bobavitch, that you can read on Happy Mag here:
There’s a lot of talks in the unsigned world, and indeed in the world in general about two proposed pieces of law that could be changing some rules in the music industry.
Now I’m not a lawyer so I have a hard time, like the majority of us, to understand all the fine prints and hundred pages of articles these proposed law changes are supposed to accomplish, but I’m trying hard to follow these things, because I believe that they are crucial to the future of recorded music in this world which has short changed creators in favor of Silicon Valley mega corporations.
First the Music Modernization Act, or MMA for short, which is a US Bill that comprises several pieces of legislation, mainly the MMA, the AMP act and the CLASSIC act. It has first been unanimously voted by the House of Representatives, and is now under scrutiny by the US Senate (which just released several amendments).
The MMA has been widely acclaimed as a necessary and important step in the right direction to clarify and standardize copyrights licensing of music and the various entities that are involved in managing publishers and mechanical rights. Problem is that this bill, from what I could read, is far from perfect and leaves some big gaps that streaming platforms in particular are going to exploit to further down their influence and wealth at the expense of creators, which is why I believe it’s a first step (although a possibly evil one in some details), and hopefully not the end of it… There is for example a problem with the minority of artists representation, when labels and streaming platforms have double the ranks when taking decisions. Then there is this proposal of a black box, that is going to hold unclaimed copyrights revenue, which will later be distributed based on market share to labels. Problem is that this creates a situation where the holders of this big pot will have no incentive to find the right owners, one could even say they will have every incentive not to find them, thus spoiling further the unsigned artists who are misrepresented and lack the legal power to enforce their rights.
So, as of now, this MMA bill, is both a blessing and a curse for unsigned artists, because it will regulate some of the Wild West situation in the US when it comes to copyrights, but will also create a new situation (that labels and streaming platform will deem ideal, of course) where they might have even less chances to get compensated correctly. If you are outside of the US, you might think this doesn’t affect you, but if you are a modern musician, chances are that you release your music worldwide, so this will affect your royalties anyway.
Now comes the Article 13, which is a EU directive that could affect the way some platforms have been hiding behind a “safe harbor” outdated law to avoid licensing costs or pay a lot less than others. Google/Youtube in particular, which is by far the biggest music platform, has been using this for 20 years to create an empire based on copyrights infringements.
Turns out that not that long ago, an Austrian court found Youtube liable for doing the very thing that they deny doing and that would give them the right to hide behind this safe harbor: they filter, edit, link, transform content every second of every day. They even have in place a system called Content ID that allows them to identify anything you post and monetize it, by putting ads on your videos. They hide behind DMCA rules, which puts the responsibilities of right owners to issue a take down notice when finding an infringement, when they should be held liable for the content they filter, edit, link and transform. Send a take down notice to Youtube and the content will possibly disappear, but will reappear the next day and Youtube will do nothing about it, in fact it will monetize it and make money out of it…
Following this Austrian ruling (which Youtube will most likely appeal), the European Commission has pushed further their Article 13 proposal, which aims to abolish in the EU the safe harbor for platforms that are clearly making editorial decision and are not just “transparent” user platforms. Of course Google/Youtube right now is pushing everyone with its enormous lobbying power (whether openly or under many disguises) to call out their MEP to vote against this directive…
Behind this directive though, many artists defense organizations, and even high profile artists are standing to support what could be a game changer in ending the value gap that YouTube has been exploiting for 20 years now, and has ripped off so many rights holders, among them unsigned artists being the most fragile and endangered of all, as they are being swept out as collateral damage for the good of the Silicon Valley monopoly.
You will read from Google subsidies that Article 13 is a danger to freedom of expression (which is the old claim that pirates have always held dear), or that this will kill internet memes, and other nonsense like that, when the article is including all sorts of provisions to ensure this is not the case. I believe the Google lobbying machine has no shame spreading lies to keep milking their golden goose, and they do so under many disguises.
I advise all songwriters and creators to look closer at the real content of these 2 pieces of law with objectivity and try not be influenced by the lobbying campaigns the various stakeholders are pushing at us. It’s time to open our eyes and fight for our artistic rights!
* In this post, I’ve left the links out because there are too many to choose from, a simple search in your preferred search engine (try something else than Google for a change and you’ll see different results, funnily enough, especially when it comes to Article 13, which menaces to take down their beloved safe harbor).
If you are into any kind of arts related circles, you’re bound to have encountered the mythic exposure bucks: It’s the kind of money that is offered by promoter/scam artists who want to use your art for no payment at all. Of course, by doing so they will themselves get some money, sometimes even asking you for it!
Now that’s an offer that is hard to refuse, right? You get “exposure bucks” for a few dollars (or euros, or pounds or whatever your real money is). The rate is always fluctuating, and is set by the “promoters” themselves, it’s almost like crypto currency, and it’s been around even before that crypto scam was invented! And nowhere more than in the unsigned music world is it more prevalent.
It’s hard to navigate the unsigned world, but it gets even harder as soon as you encounter these people who will send you emails and private messages on social media, telling you about their “wonderful” opportunities, when it so happens that they have a promotion for you! (That’s right! They always have a fantastic/brand new promotion just for you!).
But I would be very wary of anyone contacting you to “promote” your music. Spoiler alert: This is NOT how it works!
Now of course these con artists are just a little nuisance compared to the more greedy and powerful of them all: the streaming platforms. These platforms who manage to make you believe that they are going to pay more in the future (I actually heard some artists believing and repeating that!), when simple arithmetic will tell you that it’s simply not possible: the rate they pay is primarily based on what the average song value is, which is itself based on the number of songs they have in their catalog divided by the number of paying subscribers they have (minus all the expense they have, which are big, including royal payments to themselves).
Problem is that EVERY DAY more than 24000 new songs are added to streaming platforms, and although they are adding new subscribers most of them are free listeners or get some kind of discount, so of course these corporations keep hemorrhaging money in every corner. How do you think their rates are going to get higher? Is that magical thinking from desperate artists? No, of course not, because this is where the mighty exposure bucks come to the rescue! Yay!
They will just tell you that you shouldn’t look at the money anyway…
No, really! You should take into account the exposure they allow you to get. What with their millions of people listening, eh? Now that would be so true if their algorithms were not meant to discard you little ones in favor of the big ones from the big labels that they push on top of every searches. If they didn’t have big ties with labels to push the same artists on all their playlists. That might be true if the vast majority of the listeners weren’t listening to the same decades old catalog.
In the end, it still comes down to this: whether they are little con artists or big crooks, it’s really up to you to say no to exposure bucks, because one thing is for sure, you won’t be able to pay your rent with these.
I’ve been reading about Blockchain lately… You’ve probably heard of it, at least you must have heard of Bitcoin, and have heard the latest crypto babble that the media enjoys so much. After all a good jargon is the wet dream of every journalist.
Now this technology is supposed to be the remedy to everything… Yes! Even the music industry! And well, if it can cure that, surely it will cure cancer!
Enter Musicoin and co
In the unsigned world, I see some people rave about Musicoin for example, and how this wonderful platform is going to pay out more than any streaming platform and materialize money out of thin air, without any ads, while still being totally free for listeners. That’s pure magic or I don’t know what!
Turns out that Musicoin is only one of the many new platforms with more white paper than sense, apparently. (Boy! Do they love their white papers! They are all chock full of technical jargon that is mostly included to confuse you even more than you were). Digging a bit, without too much effort, I then found out about other platforms like Artbyte, Soundchain, Emanate, eMusic, Bittunes, Voise, Choon, Ujo (this one is funny, with Imogen Heap herself having released her “Tiny Human” song which sales amounted to a grand total of $133.20!) plus all these exotic new “currencies” dedicated to music like Musicoin but also Audiocoin, Songcoin, Metal Music Coin, Muse, Beatcoin… looks like they invent a new coin every day. Check out this website which references 1916 of these entries (as of today anyway!) Actually there is even a platform that allows anyone to create their own! Time for a BeardCoin?
My first contact with Musicoin was from links that some indie enthusiasts were sharing. Being curious I tried to listen, but the player would never want to play, so I went to the website and it looked rather messy to me. Not a really good impression overall. But OK. That’s another beta platform, right? <insert big sigh here>
Since their claim to being able to pay a decent amount per play was pretty extra-ordinary, I decided I would dig further… But I’m going to tell you straight up: I didn’t like what I found. At all.
Monkey money, monkey business
First, the value of Musicoin is in fact so fluctuant that what you read on their platform about the supposed earnings of the artists is never even close to reality. You see, first you have to exchange $MUSIC currency into another more accepted crypto currency (Like Bitcoin or Ethereum), using a convoluted process involving trading on a coin market or another (there are only a couple that can do this at the moment). The process is so ridiculously complex, involving installing a wallet application on your PC, opening an account on a couple trading sites, juggling with obscure hashes and calculating decimals, and gauging whether the time is right to “sell” your precious coins, that only seriously chronic nerds are going to want to go near it. I’m not joking, see this tutorial.
The real cost of Blockchain
The recommended process to ultimately withdraw your few Musicoin earnings is to trade them first against Bitcoin. Of course you will have to pay big fees to do so because the computing of your transaction involves a lot of computers in a pool, and it gets increasingly more complex as days go by, involving increasingly more processing power, and ultimately, increasingly more electricity. Fact is, Bitcoin today is already using 0.5% of the world’s electricity and by late next year, will be consuming more electricity than can be produced by the entire world solar panels. Let this all sink in for a moment.
And then of course, once you get your Bitcoins fractions, you will have to trade them again on another coin market into some real money, which means a lot more transaction fees (up to 50% from what I’ve seen) and a lot more electricity consumption…
Reading further on the Blockchain craziness, it turns out there is a lot of approximation and misinformation around (but of course there is, it’s a big buzzword in the press, and most journalists have no clue about the underlying technological issues, which are apparently numerous). I also found some articles that took to debunk all this hype, for example this one about eMusic (a Musicoin competitor). Let’s just say that I don’t have all the background that this guy has, but I have the general feeling again (thanks Mom, wherever you are!) that when something looks too good to be true, it generally is! Anyway, the guy wrote a book about the Blockchain scam.
So, to sum up: you get your tunes on a platform that’s pretty buggy (it’s beta), people are going to listen to them for free, you get paid virtual coins that you need to exchange against other virtual coins using a complex process, opening many accounts on various platforms, leaving more of your private information everywhere, trade on a virtual market that is bound to spiral down when all is said and done (remember the internet bubble burst? I do) and is consuming electricity at an exponential rate, which will ultimately eat all our planet resources… what’s wrong with this picture?
The worst of it
All of this and I still have another issue with this whole thing. And it’s another big one: turns out that this whole mess is again making everyone believe that it’s perfectly normal to listen to music for free, that no one needs to pay for it. Aren’t we all tired of this refrain?
If the fact that it’s all based on more hype and technological magic than reality, the fact that it’s unsustainable long term, the fact that it’s endangering our planet resources, if all of that wasn’t bad enough they are also basically saying that music is not worth paying for.
In conclusion, you know what? I wish you all good luck with this, but you can count me out. I mean until they come out with something really significant of course, like a BeardCoin for example, at which point I might trade my Monopoly money for it.
The indie world is full of wonders! No, really! Every day, if you are an unsigned artist, you will get at least a dozen of marvelous opportunities in your mailbox, or via social media private messages… It’s amazing how everyone wants you on their platforms or radio, amazing how many people want to promote your music, and bring you in front of millions of potential fans!
Turns out that all of these so called opportunities are click baits and you will soon learn that for the discounted price of $$$ (they accept Paypal!) you will be the new star of a social media no man’s land, guaranteed!
I must be getting old, because I will repeat what my mama used to say: when it sounds too good to be true, it usually is! That’s right, if you look closer, all of these wonderful opportunities turn out to not much… but hey, they are at a discounted price!
If you are new to this business, you will quickly learn to discard all these scams, they are not that hard to distinguish, really!
What might be a bit harder to wrap your head around are the countless platforms and radios who are not asking money upfront. You might think: “Great! These are not the scammers, finally! These are real genuine music lovers and they are going to help me reach an audience”.
Now is the right time to read the fine prints.
USER TERMS - LICENSE
“With respect to any Content posted by or in connection with the Products and Services, you hereby grant XXX a WORLD-WIDE, ROYALTY FREE, IRREVOCABLE, PERPETUAL license, alone or together or as part of other information, Content and/or material of any kind or nature, to use, copy, modify, publish, edit, translate, transmit, publicly display, publicly perform, and otherwise EXPLOIT such Content (specifically including through streaming, podcasting, online/broadcast and satellite radio, suggested playlists and user playlists, but specifically excluding through phonograph records), to publish and promote such Content in connection with the particular Products and Services (including, without limitation, for advertising and promotional purposes), to publish and promote such Content elsewhere within XXX or any other XXX website through links to XXX, and to SUBLICENSE such rights through multiple tiers of sublicenses, all without any obligation to you, whether by way of compensation, attribution or otherwise. Such license shall apply with respect to any form, media, or technology now known or hereafter developed.”
I have highlighted here the part that they especially DON’T want you to pay too close attention to. Read it again. Let it sink in!
What this basically says is that you are granting these people the perpetual, irrevocable right to do anything they want with your music, to use as they see fit on their platform/radio or any other that they might be affiliated to and might create later. They might use it and license it somewhere else, without your knowledge and you will have no recourse against that. They will have NO obligation to you, not even the obligation to say that this is YOUR music. In short, it’s the good old “all your data are belong to us” again!
So I suggest you read all these “term of use” very closely. Each time you submit your music somewhere. You might have already submitted somewhere with these kinds of terms. I’m pretty sure you did, because they are everywhere. Now is time to think of how much you want that supposed exposure, are you prepare to forfeit your rights to your own music perpetually and irrevocably? What kind of compensation will you actually get from it?
So, again, think long and hard about where you put your music, because otherwise one of these days you will realize that they might not have a license to kill, but you might have granted them a license to steal!
On twitter this week, Indie Music Bus asked an interesting question to artists: What do you think is a fair amount of money to stream 1 of your songs?
I thought about it and I will try to elaborate my reasoning here.
Let’s say the average number of plays for someone buying one of your tune on iTunes or others at a price of $1 (let’s forget the taxes and such to make this simpler) is about 50. That’s a generous number, because I would think that most people will get bored with your tune before hearing it fifty times, some songs might get more love, but most would get less, so let’s keep it simple again, even if this is a gross exaggeration…
Now let’s say that on average the artist gets 50% of the $1. Again that would be an average, because if you sell on your own site, you will get 100%, on Bandcamp you would earn 85% on iTunes, around 35%. So it really depends where you would have sold the song in the first place… But let’s say that you get 50%… this means that you should get $0.5 for about a 50 plays, right?
So to me, the logical, basic, common sense answer on the artist side is $0.5/50 = $0.01 per stream… Now, compare that to the average (ponderated among all streaming platforms) of $0.0016 and you will see that we’re far from what would be considered fair right now.
You would say: but these streaming platforms have servers and development costs, employees to pay, offices to rent, etc. Of course! And I would never imply that they shouldn’t take their cut and cover their expenses and costs.
But let’s take Spotify for example: because they keep offering freemium subscriptions (which they have said will increase), spend their money on huge paychecks and royal accommodations while losing millions of dollars and letting scams undermine their own business model, it looks like their cut is never going to be enough. And this is why they are paying less and less royalties, use loopholes and lies to avoid paying royalties and are sued for not paying altogether…
It’s hard to believe that they are acting towards making things right, nor that they have the will to do so in any foreseeable future. I don’t see streaming platforms in general working towards paying artists fairly, quite the contrary, and because of that, I believe we, artists, should not support them in any way.
So in the end, before asking what’s fair for artists, perhaps we should start exposing how unfair the current situation is and make every music lover aware of it.
One of the argument I hear often about the marvelous benefits of streaming is how it has been the music industry savior, after the Napster years of generalized piracy which killed the cash cow that labels were enjoying, selling CDs and CD re-releases at prohibitive prices…
Perhaps it’s true for big labels, who, although they’ve seen their margins drastically reduced since their heyday (but truth is that they were pretty guilty of milking that cash cow much too much), are now enjoying some renewed revenue from streaming, thanks to their partnership contracts, allowing them to collect most of the revenues generated (the top 10% of the streaming catalog from all providers is collecting 99% of the revenues). Not so surprising when the search algorithms and big playlists pushed to streaming platforms users are carefully tweaked to favorite the big labels and their artists.
Once again, it’s the independent labels and the unsigned artists who bear the brunt of the industry debacle. And I would argue that the supposed streaming savior has made no difference at all for these 90%, who are truly the collateral damage of this digital economy, as Maria Schneider, five time Grammy award winner, points out in her open letter to the NMPA (National Music Publishers Association) outlining her perspective on the MMA (Music Modernization Act).
And not only didn’t streaming made any difference for independent artists, I would also say it made things worse.
But hey! Piracy has been vanquished, hasn’t it? Well, there are some indications that it’s actually not the case, as you can see in the chart above which lists the percentage of various types of copyright infringements by age group (based on consumer research from IFPI - the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry).
Combine Youtube free-for-all, – knowing they are by far the biggest streaming platform nowadays, with a pay per play rate far below any other thanks to infamous “Safe Harbor” loopholes –, with a rise of “stream ripping” tools, allowing anyone to download what’s played from free accounts on any streaming platforms, and you get a much more insidious kind of piracy, one that takes the guise of legality and one that is mostly benefiting the streaming giants.
Again, if big labels, and indeed streaming platforms can brush that off as simple losses compensated by their ad-generated huge profits, it cannot be the case for unsigned artists who are seeing their work stolen, or abused at a pay per play rate so low it’s laughable. What artists lose by believing in the streaming golden mirage is real physical and download sales that is fair pay for their craft, investment, time and efforts.
In the end, I would argue that piracy was better for unsigned artists, as it was mostly touching big labels, and it was after all, illegal, so actions could be taken against it. Nowadays, streaming is little more than legalized piracy and there’s not much we can do about it, or so it seems, short of opting out and educating our fans. I believe that opting out is our only option because it is our work that is exploited… Remove the work and that could ultimately force the industry to reconsider the digital economy landscape. If they don’t do it, then I suppose it’s time we do it ourselves.
But until we all remove our copyrighted work from all these places where everyone can access it and pirate it freely at no cost and with no consequences, there’s no doubt we are in fact just feeding the monster…
Ready for a change?
EDIT: Also see, published today, this article from Digital Music News
I wanted to share my experience, what I call “the true story of royalties for unsigned artists”…
First, know that Radio airplay is considered a public performance. Public performances generate performance royalties for songwriters, which are collected by the PROs (BMI, ASCAP, SESAC in the US, SOCAN in Canada, PRS in the UK, SACEM in France, basically every country have their own Publishing Rights Organization). There’s an issue with FM/AM radios in the US not paying performance rights, only songwriters rights, but that’s a story for another day.
Now I’ve had various discussions lately with artists and some radios hosts, and some people argued that right now the issue with internet radios is that the vast majority of them is not paying any royalties. It should be illegal, right? For sure, but the reality is that there is so much of them that no law enforcement action is taken against them because of lack of clear regulations (some loopholes being used?) or simple lack of resources for the law to be enforced in the first place.
The internet is really like the old Wild West, and when it comes to trying to defend the artists copyright, there’s basically no sheriff you can turn to. In the US for example, if you really want to make a case of it, you’d have to sue in a federal court, which is going to cost you such a huge amount of money that it’s basically not practically possible.
But then, there is also another problem… The fact is that whether these radios you are played on are paying their dues or not is not going to make any difference for you. You will not see a cent from the airplay anyway!
That's right! Believe it or not, being played on a radio that pays royalties or not is not making any difference for unsigned artists right now! Even radios who are playing nothing but unsigned artists are actually not paying royalties back to the artists they play, they are just sending checks to big labels. How screwy is that?
All of this is because basically the radios (or their internet providers paying royalties out of the radio subscription) are paying a “blanket” license for all the airplay. These blanket licenses represent X amount of songs played during X amount of hours. This is paid to the PROs, and what do the PROs do with that money? Well, they are not looking at who has been played, it would be too much of an effort, right? So they are paying a pro rata to labels based on their market share. Yep, you got that right! It basically means big labels get the big checks, the little labels get little checks, and guess what kind of check the independent artists get?
The result of this is that since I’ve released my first EP, in June last year (almost 9 months ago!), I have received 0 cent from airplay, even from radios that I know for sure are paying royalties. I just went again to my SOCAN royalties statement who is still desperately blank, 9 months and many airplay later…
So really, there is a dire need for radios to do things right. But first, the legislation that governs the copyrights and the blanket licenses should be amended so that the true owners of the copyrights are compensated for each airplay and not as a pro rata of their market share, because truly they get nothing from that.