Independent artists fear the demise of Internet radio

July 04, 2007|By SONiA

I've spent my entire career making music that transcends fear. In fact, the Baltimore-based band I started with my sister in 1994 is called disappear fear.

It might come as a surprise, then, that I'm writing now about something a lot of independent artists are scared about these days: the impending death of Internet radio.

Indie artists don't often have the luxury of being the "next big thing," endorsed and promoted by the record industry. For a lot of us, broadcast radio is mostly uncharted territory. We've come to rely on the Internet to get the word out, namely Internet radio, through which a lot of us have been able to find a modest fan base.

Because we aren't regularly appearing on MTV, and American Idol's Ryan Seacrest probably doesn't know our names, Internet radio is one of our few real opportunities for exposure to large audiences. With more than 7 million Internet radio listeners every day - most of whom are tired of the redundancy they find on broadcast radio - the opportunities abound for the artists who before had very few. What's more, over each of the last few years, Internet radio's audience has grown steadily.

Now we're at risk of losing it.

In May, the Copyright Royalty Board issued catastrophic royalty rate increases - ranging from 300 percent to 1,200 percent - that Internet radio companies would have to pay for the music they stream. The rates are set to take effect July 15, with the increases retroactive to January of last year.

As you might expect, these rate increases would drastically outweigh the revenues of many Internet radio broadcasters, most of whom have small staffs and budgets and are struggling to make online radio a sustainable business. Many of these Webcasters would have no choice but to shut down in the face of these new rates.

While the royalty rate increases would mean certain bankruptcy for almost every Webcaster, the effect on indie artists would also be disastrous. Losing Internet radio would mean the loss of our biggest promotional resource.

This becomes obvious when you look at the market. Right now, independent artists make up less than 10 percent of what's played on broadcast radio. On Internet radio, we make up about 37 percent.

And as much I appreciate royalties as an artist, a bump in royalties means little to indie singer-songwriters if it also means the death of our biggest source of exposure. If Internet radio dies, there won't be any royalties to pay.

The reality is, if our leaders in Congress allow these new royalty rates to go into effect - and it's within Congress' power to decide - it will make it much harder for independent artists like me to get off the ground to find their audience. What's worse for music lovers is that with such high fees, online radio will start to look a whole lot more like broadcast radio: a limited number of artists, a limited number of genres and a lot of bored music fans.

I've become a believer in Internet radio for selfish reasons - as both an artist and a listener - but the principle of creating a marketplace encouraging artistic entrepreneurs stands on its own. It should be no surprise that the Internet, the source of innovation in so many different industries, has been the home of and outlet for innovation in the music industry.

Killing Internet radio would stifle this innovation just as it would stifle the indie labels and bands fighting to be heard, the Webcasters fighting to stay alive and the listeners just trying to find something new.

I'm not worried about me. As a solo artist and in our band, I have had a great career, crisscrossing the country and traveling the world. I have been fortunate to have had broadcast radio support. But I'm concerned about the artists just now getting their start.

For us, Internet radio has become essential. A world without it can only be described as scary.

SONiA is a Baltimore-based musician. Her e-mail is sonia@disappearfear.com.

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