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Do Touch That Dial

OK, hereís a good deal. Go to sxsw .com and click on ďtoolkit.Ē On the upper right of the page there is a torrent file that will get you 749 MP3 song files of bands that are playing at the South by Southwest festival this week in Austin, Texas. Itís free and totally legal. These are bands that want you to hear them. So, go get the download and listen! Iím still discovering new bands from last yearís batch of songs. Youíll be introduced to great bands with names like I Can Lick Every Sonofabitch in the House, Deaf in the Family, and my favorite: Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.

A few years ago when I started doing radio again (you can hear my show The Splatto Festival most Fridays at 3 PM streaming at Berk shireradio.org) I started digging around for the music of my youth. My grade-school best friendís older brother had a band in Batavia, N.Y., that released a 45 RPM single in 1967, a prize from winning a battle-of-the-bands contest. I got a copy of the single when it came out, but itís long gone. Iím sure only 500 copies or so were made. Now, 40 years later, I doubted that Iíd be able to locate a copy anywhere. But I really wanted to find it and play it on the radio.

So I did a Google search, and voila, there it was, listed on playlists of two tiny Internet radio stations. I contacted both, and both graciously offered to e-mail me an MP3 of the single for a small donation. Iíve played the A-side, a terrific Byrds-y version of John D. Loudermilkís ďTobacco RoadĒ on the radio a bunch of times. A 40-year-old obscurity, some upstate New York teenagers pouring their hearts onto vinyl, has new life. Iíve e-mailed copies to my old best friend and a few other folks who were around Batavia in 1967, and theyíre thrilled to have it again. And I couldnít have done it without the help of obsessive music freaks who collect stuff like this, digitize it, and maintain Internet radio stations where they broadcast, to the whole world, their little slices of heaven, rescued from the remains of our collective culture. As far as Iím concerned, these people are doing Godís work.

And this may all soon come to a crashing halt, if the U.S. Copyright Office, spoon-fed policy from the recording industry, has its way.

Radio stations traditionally have been allowed to play recordings for free. Songwriters got paid through ASCAP and BMI fees paid by broadcasters, but not record companies. Radio play has always been considered promotional, and the broadcast industryís lobbyists apparently paid off Congress better than the recording industryís. And it makes sense: Given that the record industry is constantly getting caught illegally paying off radio for airplay, the idea of radio paying record companies to play music is stupid. Not the way of the world.

Then along comes the Internet, where anybody can put up a radio station. Where the number of stations and the diversity of selections are unlimited. And where, increasingly, people are going to listen, because broadcast radio generally sucks. Broadcast radio and the music industry, both threatened by this new egalitarian and uncontrollable phenomenon, convinced Congress (well, OK, paid Congress) to pass a bill that made a distinction between broadcast (open air) music and digitally transmitted (Internet) music. Broadcast music would still be free, but digital transmissions of music now required a performance royalty. And the level of that royalty would be set by the Copyright Office.

So the playing field between broadcast radio and Internet radio was tilted to favor broadcast radio, dominated by corporate behemoths like Clear Channel, and to the detriment of Internet programmers. A few years ago the Copyright Office recommended a level of royalties that would have killed Internet radio for all but the biggest players, and those recommendations were beaten back to a manageable level. Now a new set of royalties have been proposed, and theyíre worse. The new proposed royalties, which apparently mirror a proposal made to the Copyright Office from the RIAA, would wipe out smaller niche programmers, folks who are putting up the music you wonít hear anywhere else, the archivists, the geeks, the people who are putting music on the Internet not for money, but for love. Folks who champion artists who will never get played on commercial radio, and who program from the heart, not from a focus-group study. Who reside on the fringes, and arenít rushing to the lower common denominator, or making shareholders happy.

The proposed royalty rates can be appealed, and the issue may wind up in court or back in Congress. But right now is a shaky period for Internet radio, which hasnít yet learned to crawl, much less walk. And itís disheartening to see that the Copyright Office is so deeply in the pocket of the industry, and hasnít got the slightest clue about what is vital for the sustenance of our culture and cultural heritage. Sickening, really.

óPaul C. Rapp


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