Clear Channel’s move to make a direct licensing deal for over the air performances with record label Big Machine is a stunning development for the radio industry. I’ve spent a day or so pondering all the ways this could impact the issues, and have come away marveling at what a forceful move this was by Bob Pittman and his team. (Read excellent coverage by RAIN here.)
The radio industry has been refusing to cut a deal with record companies that would compensate artists for over the air play in exchange for a better deal on streaming royalties. Broadcasters and the NAB have tried and failed to come up with a solution, and the issue is currently headed for Congressional intervention – with Future of Audio hearings that started yesterday on the hill. Hence the incredibly nervy and savvy timing of Clear Channel’s announcement that they had signed up to pay a share of both on-air and online revenues to record label Big Machine, the company behind such big names as Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts and Tim McGraw.
Bob Pittman is indeed just what the radio industry needs.
The radio industry has been moaning about streaming royalties for years. This has caused them to take a half hearted approach to Internet radio, which in turn has created mediocre offerings that are not competitive with highly developed interactive offerings such as Pandora, Spotify and others. But their unwillingness to pay over the air royalties to artists makes the record labels unwilling to negotiate better digital deals with them.
Meanwhile, online listening is growing exponentially.
“Unrealistic rates on the digital side were choking the ability to expand digitally for radio companies,” said Irving Azoff, a Clear Channel director and chairman of Live Nation Entertainment Inc.. “We’re trying to convince labels to enter into a direct deal because we can’t get legislation passed,”.
“Someone has to go first, someone has to take a risk,” said Clear Channel CEO Robert Pittman. “If digital grows a lot, this will be a good deal. It’s a gamble. But you win nothing if you don’t take a chance.”
So Pittman took a chance. He took a look at the future of radio and decided that digital is it. Reluctant to let Congress determine how his game will be played, he cut a deal with a little record company that has a few big names. By doing that he forced the first brick out of the wall between broadcast radio and performance royalties for artists, and I suspect we’ll see the whole thing come tumbling down. Broadcasters will pay over the air royalties, because their hand was forced, but also because it just doesn’t make sense that other platforms have to and they do not. Playing fields will be leveled, programming will improve and opportunities will grow – for radio stations and for recording artists.