Have you ever wondered why mainstream radio is so redundant? Why we may hear the same song so many times in one day? Or why so many of the artists sound similar?
The answer may lie in three words: Clear Channel Communications.
Over the past several years, Clear Channel, the nation’s largest owner of AM/FM radio, has been implicated several times in scandals involving payola, the practice of demanding money in return for airtime for a record company’s most desired artists.
Payola is illegal, and has been for decades, but Clear Channel and others like it have always somehow found ways around that. These payments can be as large as thousands of dollars for just one week of airtime. The end result: only bands with backing from a major label could get played, and bands that couldn’t afford it were left in the cold. A few years ago the practice had returned with such vengeance that several commentators and music fans began to complain of mainstream radio’s moribund playlists. "Commercial radio long ago ceased to be a good source for discovering new music," according to Stereophile’s Barry Willis in a 2003 article. "College radio stations, cable TV’s DMX service, and the internet are much richer resources." Apparently, Clear Channel began to feel the heat, and tried to change its tune quick.
This past May, the Federal Communications Commission closed a long investigation into the matter. Clear Channel and three other communications behemoths paid $12.5 million in fines (mere pocket change to them), and admitted no wrong doing. Perhaps the biggest victory to come out of it was an agreement that Clear Channel would require its stations to devote 4,200 hours to independent and local artists.
As per the agreement, forms were posted online for independent artists to apply for airplay. Finally, it looked like some headway would be made in making the radio more vibrant and diverse. But last month, the other shoe dropped. On the application for DC 101 FM, it was revealed that the artists were required to sign away their digital performance rights should Clear Channel decide to use the song over the internet. What that means was laid out succinctly in a statement from the Future of Music Coalition: "In other words, Clear Channel is asking the artists to sign away his or her right to get paid a royalty when it digitally broadcasts the artist’s work." Similar language has been found on other station’s applications.
Jenny Toomey, executive director for the Future of Music Coalition put it well: "This is like the fox getting caught in the hen house a second time and arguing he shouldn’t get in trouble because he was leaving the hens alone… he was just eating all the eggs."
So much for levelling the playing field.
What makes this even worse is that Clear Channel isn’t only a major player, it is a veritable behemoth. Since the deregulation of radio in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the company has gained control of sixty percent of terrestrial radio stations.
And yes, this is the same Clear Channel that banned the Dixie Chicks after they spoke out against Bush. Who banned any political song directly after 9/11, including everything by Rage Against the Machine. And who helped sponsor pro-war rallies in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq.
But there is a broader trend at play here. What this scandal illustrates is yet another way that the music industry is a blight on music itself. Radio conglomerates are concerned only by how much they can make off of today’s music. But it is the brains, skill and talent of the musicians that makes us want to listen in the first place. Until we get rid of the parasites leeching off them, then artists will never get a fair shake.
Alexander Billet is a music journalist and activist living in Washington DC. His is regular contributor to Znet and Dissident Voice, and has also appeared in CounterPunch, Socialist Worker and MR Zine.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com, and he can be reached at [email protected]