The Beau Brummels Incident
The Lengths The Labels Would Go To
Cast your mind back to 1965. If you lived in the New York metropolitan area, you listened to either WABC or WMCA. (You might have listened previously to WINS but Murray the K was gone by then.) If you listened to WABC, at the time the most popular station on earth, you might have unknowingly heard me pushing a button or two to put a song from the preposterously tight playlist on the air. And if you were listening on one particular afternoon, you would have heard something very unusual. It was the beginning of the song Don't Talk to Strangers by the Beau Brummels.
"Records" got played in those days with a bit more effort than they do now. The legendary Rick Sklar and his band of DJs would have a music meeting and select the records authorized for airing. After approval, a union engineer would get the 45RPM disk out of the music library and record it to a tape cartridge, label the cartridge, and put it in the air studio. According to a carefully devised but not precisely foreordained schedule, the DJ would hand the cartridge to the broadcast engineer sitting on the other side of the console, who would place it in a cart machine. When the DJ cued him, he would push a button which started the cart and played the song.
It was not I who started the Don't Talk to Strangers cart. But, great Beau Brummels fan that I was (and remain), I recognized it instantly. I was listening in a different room in the station and was surprised when, after only a portion of the song was played, it was stopped and Dan Ingram (who did know the music) said on the air something about how playing it was a mistake. The following off-air commotion was notable. It would seem that after Laugh Laugh and Sad Little Girl, the Beau Brummels were no longer welcome on WABC, and an investigation was begun about how Strangers could possibly have been played. Since this blogitem has nothing to do with the Beau Brummels and everything to do with Radio vs. The Record Labels, I'll keep the answer short.
1: None of the people involved in making the cart knew or cared about the song; it was just a mechanical transcription process to them. They had no idea what was on the cart beyond the label that was on the record
2: The 45 that was transcribed was mislabeled as an approved record. How Don't Talk To Strangers got on the record is a mystery to this day. Some (including myself) ascribe it to an innocent error at the pressing plant. Others, otherwise as sane as someone who works in radio can be, felt it was a plot by a record company to get an otherwise unplayable record on the air at WABC. If that was the case, it did work, but not very well.
But nobody doubted for a minute that if the record company had thought of it and did believe it would have worked they wouldn't have done it with glee in their little larcenous spleens.
Fast Forward 45 Years
Radio has changed. The world has changed. Even record companies have changed: their little larcenous spleens have hypertrophied in direct proportion to their shrinking revenues, while their business models have been run over by wheels great and small on the "information superhighway." The same record companies that hired promoters and offered "payola" to radio stations not so long ago are now demanding that radio stations pay for the privilege of playing, i.e., exposing to the paying public, their wares. Are they crazy or greedy or just plain stupid?
Radio, raising the howls of the righteous, points to history, poverty, and synergy in resisting to the last watt this bizarre and self-defeating demand for payments by and to the record companies. Haven't we, radio says, been responsible for your success?
And so the kugel is raised. (Kugel is like a cudgel, but heavier and far more dangerous.) Positions are staked, letters are written, lawmakers are lobbied. Even I, largely apolitical tron that I am, finally took notice. I was alerted to the acrimony yesterday in the trade journal Radio World by dueling letters-to-the-editor. And as of today, I found this brief item from the broadcasters' trade organization:
NAB says its House resolution opposing a performance royalty for radio now has 220 supporters — two more than necessary to block the legislation. The Local Radio Freedom Act, a resolution that denounces the imposition of “any new performance fee, tax, royalty or other charge” on radio for music airplay also has 12 Senate co-sponsors.
Can't we all get along and be happy?
Sure we can. Of course the record companies are crazy or greedy or just plain stupid, pick any three. And NAB isn't exactly unbiased, either. But there is a simple solution. (That phrase might alert you to the fact that the writer is the "simple" one, but decide for yourself in a minute.) Let's start by realizing that, like it or not, music is owned by someone other than the radio stations that play it. By the copyright notice at the lower left of this blogitem, I notify the world that this writing is mine. If I choose to charge $100 per reading (that's $.10 per millireader per blog), I am entitled to do so. You vote with your mouse, as it were; I don't anticipate receiving a lot of checks or PayPal credits. If the music owners choose to charge for the use of their material, that is their contract-given right.
But what about the service radio performs for the record companies? Aha!
If the radio stations choose to charge to play the music owners' songs, that should be their contract-given right, too. And therein lies the solution.
Radio's Itty Bitty, Teensy Weensy Request
"The Local Radio Freedom Act"—don't you love that part of "how a bill becomes law"—is doing too much denouncing and not enough legislating. Instead, it needs to promote reciprocity. Let the music copyright owners charge stations whatever they like to play their music. But, at the same time, allow the stations to charge the copyright owners for playing it. As I recall the "payola" scandal, the problem was that radio stations and personnel were accepting bribes to play certain records. This is bad, of course, because the listeners didn't know about the bribes. It's easy to fix, too. Get the bribes out in the open and on the Web!
What everyone in the controversy seems to be forgetting amid the labels' Cheyne-Stokes breathing and the disappearance of any semblance of a radio audience due to "new media" is that radio stations don't play music, they play songs. Any negotiation that fails to recognize this is doomed because both parties are right and wrong at the same time. Of course copyright owners need radio to play their songs, the stations are doing them a big favor and shouldn't have to pay. Of course radio stations are making money on the songs they broadcast and should be forced to pay!
But: some songs are worth money to the station, some to the labels.
The Stairway To Heaven Effect
I don't think a lot of people go out and buy Led Zeppelin's Stairway To Heaven when a radio station plays it for the thousandth time. And yet the station keeps their listeners off the streets with that old standard. Why shouldn't the station pay to play it? Let the copyright owner set the price as he will; let the station decide if the price is too high. If it is, maybe they'll decide to play "Layla," not knowing that it's an instant tune-out, at least for me. Meanwhile, up-and-coming artists Sterba Curtain and the Cubical Quads have written a beautiful ballad about biodiesel that they think will be a big hit if only it could get some exposure. They can attain same by offering radio stations a few pennies or a few bucks to play it. Would it be such a disaster if someone at the station listened to the song and exercised a bit of musical editorial judgment? Imagine that—a radio station with a music director!
If every individual song came with its own price tag, positive or negative, it would provide incentives for all and coercion for none.
Hopefully Layla will be expensive.