It's a long, complicated and depressing tale, but it boils down to this: The RIAA believes Internet radio stations should pay much higher fees than conventional radio stations pay. Currently, regular radio stations pay songwriter royalties, but, because the RIAA considers regular radio a promotional tool, it's off the hook when it comes to performance royalties and additional payments to the labels. For chrissakes, thanks to the miraculous legal loophole known as independent promoters (i.e., bribe-facilitators), major labels routinely pay commercial radio stations to broadcast their artists. That's because they recognize commercial radio for what it is: a way to force-feed their inferior wares to a captive audience.
Internet radio changed all that. People who weren't satisfied with the usual dreck could, through the magic of the World Wide Web, find a station that corresponded to their tastes. Whether it's French cheese-house, Australian punk rock, Laotian death metal or one of the several million other subgenres that aren't represented by Clear Channel or the few other megacorporations that control the airwaves, chances are somebody, somewhere, digs this kind of music enough to want to stream it over the Internet.
Still giddy from their victory over Napster, the RIAA decided to take it one step further and squelch the streaming of music over the Internet altogether. Their official argument boils down to this: Online signals are superior because they are digital and therefore are susceptible to piracy; regular radio signals aren't clear enough for anyone to steal. That's total bullshit, of course, because you can't download music from a Webstream -- moreover, even listeners with high-speed connections often experience glitches and random hiccups. Nevertheless, the RIAA believes it should earn revenues from Internet-only radio that it can't get from land-based radio -- even the ones that simultaneously broadcast over the Web. For this reason, conventional radio stations (commercial and noncommercial) stand a much better chance of surviving in cyberspace.
KDHX (88.1 FM), for example, recently resumed its live Internet broadcasts after a hiatus of several months. KDHX is a member of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which recently came to an agreement with the RIAA. The CPB will pay the fees for all CPB-affiliated stations -- fees that are much more reasonable than those Internet-only radio stations are expected to pay.
Recently the Copyright Arbitration Royalty Panel (believed by many to be unduly influenced by the RIAA) recommended that Internet-only stations comply with a "performance rights" fee agreement. If the copyright office accepts CARP's recommended rates (the deadline is May 21), the decision could kill Internet radio as we know it. According to Wanda Atkinson, co-owner/general manager of 3WK, a Web-only station based in St. Louis, the proposed fee is a whopping 449 percent of the station's annual income. That's right: Despite the fact that 3WK brought in about $10,000 last year, the brainiacs behind CARP think the humble Webcasters should pay four times that amount in performance fees.
"We were totally flabbergasted!" Atkinson exclaims. "It kind of makes you wonder if [CARP's] ultimate goal is to get rid of Webcasters so that major labels can completely control music distribution on the Internet. But I tend to think that they misunderstood the market for Webcasting right now. I think they were under the assumption that we're like most FM stations and we're generating millions of dollars. We want to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they misunderstood the economics of the situation and not that they want to get rid of us."
3WK isn't going down without a fight. In the company of several other Webcasters, its staffers plan to go to Washington on May 10 to appear before the Library of Congress. Atkinson is optimistic about their chances: "I have so much more faith in American government, going through this process. They really listened to us. If anybody came to me with a grassroots movement, I know how to do it now, and I'd have a lot of faith that we could accomplish what we want."
See www.saveinternetradio.org for more information.
The fate of Mississippi Nights is far from certain, but -- thank God for small favors! -- it's not going under immediately. The city of St. Louis recently bought the landmark Laclede's Landing nightclub for $1.3 million, hoping to find a developer that will raze it and construct a luxury apartment complex on the site. Until then, Mississippi Nights remains in business. According to general manager Tim Weber, the club has a five-year lease with the city and will continue to operate as a concert venue. "We're more in business now than we were a year ago," he says cheerfully. "There's no developer attached to the project right now. We'll be here quite a while." We pray that he's right, but let's face it: It's only a matter of time, and it might not be a whole five years before the club goes under for good. The rental agreement includes a 90-day notice clause, which means that the city can still kick Mississippi Nights out before the lease is up -- assuming an interested developer ever surfaces.