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The Rock face of the Music Radio island is eroding away, as station after station falls into the vast digital sea. Here’s a story in Radio Ink about how two FM rockers have been replaced by news and sports broadcasts that were formerly only on the AM band. (The illo for the story is a hideously discolored mug shot of the aged Mick Jagger.) But Rock isn’t the only music format that’s in trouble. All of them are.

For most of the last century, music and music radio were Xtreme symbiotes. To be popular, or just to be known to more than your local club or coffee house, you had to get your music on the radio. (For some great cinematic history on this, rent Coal Miner’s Daughter, just to see how Loretta Lynn established herself as a singer.) That’s because you also needed to sell what the radio played, which were recordings. All of those were on plastic discs.

Most music we hear is no longer on discs, or even on the radio.

Radio’s biggest advantage since the beginning was being live. This is why it’s still essential for talk, and especially for news and sports — the three formats that are winning on FM and keeping AM alive. Radio will remain strong as long as Internet streaming stays complicated (which it is, even on smartphones), and radios remain standard equipment in new cars. But music radio is still dying slowly. Three reasons:

  1. Music on radio is rarely presented by connoisseurs who know more than you do, and you’re glad to learn from. This in fact has been the case for a long time. There remain a few exceptions, but none (to my knowledge) make much money. By contrast, the Net is full of music connoisseurs and connoisseur-like offerings (e.g. Pandora, LastFM, Spotify).
  2. You don’t choose what music you want to hear. You can do that with Spotify or Rhapsody, and to a lesser extent with Pandora and LastFM.
  3. Advertising. We used to have no choice about enduring it. Now we do.

But music dying on the radio doesn’t mean it lives on the Net. At least not in the form of radio stations as we’ve known them. That’s because of copyright laws.

Radio has huge legacy legal advantages over all-digital alternatives on the copyright front. I won’t go into the details, because they’re complicated beyond endurance, but suffice it to say there is a reason why there are no podcasts of popular music. (Briefly, it’s that the podcaster would have to “clear rights” with the copyright holder of every song.) All we get is “podsafe” music, and music from outfits like the ones mentioned above, which have worked their own broad licensing deals with copyright holders — and from radio stations that enjoy similar deals and happen to stream as well.

Note that radio stations pay more, per recording, to copyright holders for streaming than they do for broadcasting on the air. But they get a break on the streaming side if they’re already broadcasting music over the air, because they don’t have to clear rights with all the artists they play.

The key here is the term “performance.” The way the law (in the U.S. at least) is set up, every play of every recording on the radio or over the Net is considered a performance, and the assumption by the copyright absolutists (the RIAA, primarily) is that copyright holders need to be paid for those performances. And they’ve been putting the squeeze in recent years on music radio to pay as much for performance rights as streamers on the Internet have been forced to pay. (They put those shackles on the Internet radio baby, right in the cradle.) This will also have a chilling effect on music radio.

So an irony of considering recorded music a “performance,” for the purpose of extracting royalties from radio stations on the Net and over the air, is that music on both is either going away or turning toward new systems, such as Spotify, LastFM, Pandora and the rest. But no new radio stations, on either the airwaves or the Net. Not if they’re going to play music of the RIAA-protected kind, which is most of what we know.

If the record industry were not immune to clues, it would find ways to open up opportunities for new music radio stations on the Net. But I doubt they will, until FM music is on its deathbed, just like it’s been on AM since FM wounded it.

Bonus links: Michael Robertson’s latest improvement to radio,

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