RIAA and David Byrne

Interestingly, David Byrne (you remember him don’t you? of Talking Heads fame?) had a run-in with the RIAA the other day.

Seems he operates an internet “radio” site that streams music, with a new playlist each month. Last month his playlist was of all one artist. As he explains in his blog, he received a warning letter informing him that for his current flat licensing fee, he can play one artist no more the 4 times in a 3-hour period. If he wants to play any one artist more often, he would have to start paying individual royalties for everything he plays.

Byrne quotes Lawrence Lessig’s estimate that for 20,000 listeners, operating 24 hours a day, Byrne would end up having to pay over a million dollars a year. What’s particularly strange about that is true radio stations pay not one dime in royalties and instead are actually paid to play certain music. Since payola is illegal, how is that possible? By the insertion of a middleman, the independent record promoter. The record promoter pays the radio station for the right to control their playlist and the record companies pay the promoter to include their CDs/artists on his playlist.

The unanswered question: how is internet “radio” any less promotional than true radio? Perhaps it’s the uncertainty of the location and makeup of the audience. With a radio station, you know the station’s range and the demographics of the listeners within that range. What do you know about who “tunes in” on the internet?