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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why We Might Not Be Here Forever

I've spent a couple of weeks trying to figure out how to put words together to describe what's happening to Internet radio in general, and Altrok Radio in particular, that didn't sound like whining. Since the upshot is that Altrok Radio could die a slow, painful death, however, I suppose sooner is better than later, so please bear with me.

If you like Altrok Radio, and Internet radio in general, there's a few things going on that you need to be aware of.

Firstly, Altrok Radio isn't free. It is for you, for the moment, and possibly for quite a long time, but that kind of depends on you. The fact is, it costs money to do this. More money, relatively speaking, than regular radio stations pay.

"They pay?" you ask. Yes, they pay royalties to organizations whose job is to distribute royalties to their member songwriters - ASCAP, BMI, SESAC and others of their ilk. Which is just fine - these folks wrote these songs, why shouldn't they be compensated for that?

I pay those royalties, too. And, responsibly, the songwriting organizations set the royalty rates at a level that made sure there was still some incentive for radio stations, both online and off, to keep playing the music that generates those royalties. If they set them too high, broadcasters of all stripes would either go out of business (bad for songwriters - no more royalties) or would tighten playlists in the hope that their audience would grow because they only play the most popular songs (also bad, but only for most songwriters - the really popular ones would love it, though.) Needless to say, both outcomes are bad for listeners.

But I also pay recording royalties - a fee for playing a particular recording, as opposed to the song featured on the recording.

And regular radio stations don't pay those.

"They don't pay?" you ask. Nope, because years back, the recording industry had to admit that when people play their recordings for an audience, that audience tends to buy those recordings - thus compensating the people who made the recording directly.

Over the years, the recording industry contented themselves with only the massive profits they've always received as a result of selling records to you and I. And when the CD appeared, they did it all over again - and this time, they claimed, it was digital, and digital was perfect. It didn't matter that cover art was shrunk, liner notes went the way of the dodo, and the general notion of selling the public a lasting product of enduring quality was swapped for the perceived perfection of these shiny metallic discs, at a sizeable markup that wasn't passed along to the artists who made those discs until many years later - in fact, because it was a new technology, the artists collected less, even though it was soon far cheaper to make CDs than it was vinyl albums...but I digress.

But then the Internet, a digital communications medium, came along, and with it came the very real possibility that this new digital medium could be used to transfer flawless digital copies of these perfect digital discs between people who had no intention of paying for them - which is, in actual fact, wrong. And so the recording industry sent its lobbyists to Washington to make sure that they could slap a fee on anything that could be used to transfer music, with a few successes:
  • There's a fee on every recordable CD you buy, regardless of use.
  • There's a fee on other recording media.
  • Promising new technologies like DAT were hobbled out of the gate by anti-copying apparatus that just made them less appealing to potential users, while putting up no barriers at all for people who actually did pirate music and movies.
  • They've made it illegal to break encryption, even of things you paid good money for.
And through it all, they've kept up one mantra: Digital reproduction is perfect. Perfect copies replace sold copies.

And that's how they managed to convince lawmakers to charge webcasters money to do the same thing regular broadcasters do for free.

Because webcasting is digital. And "digital is perfect."

And lawmakers are, apparently, unaware of the concept of "lossy compression".

You might be, too. If you are, here's a primer: lossy compression, such as MP3, does not create a perfect reproduction of sound. What it does is take enough little bits of the sound it's trying to reproduce as it can, and reassemble them, to reproduce something that sounds like, but does not exactly match, the original. It might sound about the same, at least until you get your hands on the original and realize how different it is. The more compressed it is, the less it sounds like the original. Most webcasters compress pretty heavily, because the smaller the webcast stream is, the more people can listen to it.

And yet, the recording industry has convinced lawmakers that when someone listens to web radio, they're listening to (and may possibly be capturing and keeping) a perfect replacement for the original record. For which they demand compensation.

And that's simply fiction.

If that were the only problem, Altrok Radio could tough it out. But that's not the only problem

The other part of the problem is that, having convinced lawmakers that webcasters need to pay a fee that broadcasters do not, they have now further convinced lawmakers that they need more money. The rate they asked for, and have tentatively received, is a rate so high that it eclipses the total amount of money most web radio stations make (certainly ours). A rate so high it'll likely force a lot of webcasters and webcast providers (like Live365, who do the honors for us here at Altrok) out of business. Which guarantees a lower revenue stream for the artists they're supposedly "looking out for" (most of whom haven't seen a check from SoundExchange, the agency that handles the collection of these new fees. After four years of operation, they hadn't yet found Dolly Parton. I'm not kidding.)

You may already have seen the first symptom of the reaction to this - the "are you listening?" popup that, if you don't respond, will shut down your listening. Show me an FM radio that does that and I'll show you an FM radio nobody will buy, but I suspect this is only the first in what will be a long line of lame repercussions.

So, what can you do? You might consider applying some pressure to your elected representatives. Head over to Save Net Radio for as much info as you can stand.

After you've done what you can there, do what you can here: keep listening, and keep saying you're listening when you do! I'd really like to stay in this for the long haul, but I'll need you - and anyone you know that supports, or MIGHT support, the music we play here at Altrok Radio - to help by listening, because that's the only way we can stay afloat. Without listeners, we might as well just crawl away and die.

More? Well, you can become a VIP and actually not have to bother with commercials or "are you there" prompts (at least not for about eight hours.) And you make us a bit of money when you check out our advertisers - about $10 since last November, so not a lot, but go ahead and check 'em out if they appeal to you.

And above all, spread the word. If you have a blog, link here. If you're on MySpace, link up with us over there, or at LiveJournal.

By the way, you'll be happy to know that the recording industry, while trying to portray itself as the "good guy" to artists in the hope of getting them to come out against webcasters (and their own futures) is also demanding a cut of the songwriting fees generated by industries they're not involved in, like ringtones.

Sensing a pattern here?


Blogger Bill Realman Stella said...

Excellently well-put (as usual).

I'm posting it to my account.

And, by mentioning it, I'm suggesting other readers post to their links-n-tags webpage-sharing sites, too. Let's spread the word however we can.

Bill Stella

2:14 PM, March 29, 2007  

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Welcome to, also available at and Here's where the remaining listeners of several fine radio stations have retreated, regrouped, and built a replacement strong enough to stand on its own. It builds on the independent legacy of New Jersey's FM106.3, New York's WPIX and WLIR, Oklahoma's 105.3 The Spy, the pre-buyout mindset of KROQ, WBCN and WHFS and of every other alternative station that was destroyed at a moment's notice - not because they weren't making money, but because there was bigger money to be found elsewhere.
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