Jazz On The Web: Will it dry up?

I am single, live alone, and work an odd newspaper editor's schedule and so, early in the morning, when I get home from the newsroom, I find it comforting to punch up the Internet and find some music that suits my mood.

It happens that I live in a kind of radio hell in southwest Florida, where the wee-hours AM dial features call-in shows about extraterrestrial abductions and conspiracy theories, and, on the FM side, there are oldies stations that entertain me during the drive home with songs I already own, and decade-themed stations that trot out music for those quite younger than I am who already feel nostalgic for the 1970s and '80s, that gross period when even my beloved rock 'n' roll turned smelly.

The Internet has been a blessing to me, especially by making available those streaming sites where I can settle into a period or genre, even to a particular instrument or artist, and have my soul soothed.
But now the federal government of my country has stepped in, and, with its typical crudity steeped in misundertanding, levied a performance fee against independent streaming Webcasters, a fee that, traditionally, has not been required of over-the-airwaves broadcasters, such as AM and FM radio, based on the theory that an artist's work in the hands of a broadcaster amounts to promotion of the music, as opposed to some imagined nefarious use when the same music appears on the World Wide Web.

I hasten to add that I am a respecter of copyrights and support the notion that artists should be paid for their work. But this is not a rule aimed at the file-swapping enterprises, those who practice the piracy that brought down the notorious Napster, but rather a tribute exacted for the privilege of promoting an artist's music. It is baffling to consider how one medium is exempt from the fee and another is subject to it.

So, for me, it is no great leap in logic to infer the powerful lobbying arm of the recording industry here. An industry that takes advantage of new artists. An industry that sees itself threatened by a new medium it doesn't fully understand. An industry that has, historically, delivered up pablum as easily and unself-consciously as a vomiting infant. And, not so coincidentally, an industry that spends a lot of money in political contributions to friendly candidates.

But there are other considerations here, as well.

For example, because the U.S. government has decreed this performance fee of .0007 cents (U.S.) per listener per song (it doesn't sound like much until one multiplies it by, say, the 14 million hits per month claimed by Live365.com), does it mean that other countries will follow suit? Are Webcasters that are based in other countries from mine, such as my own beloved SkyJazz headquarters in Canada, bound by the fee? And, as chauvinistic as it may seem, I have to wonder if U.S-copyrighted music will disappear from the Web altogether. If so, there will be a paucity of this exquisite and uniquely American art available to those of us who live in radio hell.

During my years as a performing musician, I played in dozens of clubs that had signs posted attesting to the clubs' membership in ASCAP or BMI, the principal organizations that collect fees to be paid to copyright owners in case my band launched into some copyrighted material, something we did nightly.
In all those years, my band had but one gig shut down because the club owner had not paid his fee. And the onus was on him, not the band, because ASCAP/BMI expect that working musicians will draw on the popular culture for material. Would you pay a cover charge to see a combo of limited fame who played nothing but original material?

Whether this means that ASCAP/BMI were especially vigilant or especially lax, I cannot say. It is either a case of letting a purring system work, or overhauling the enforcement of regulations already in place.
This all smells to me like an antiquated bureaucracy that feels threatened. It doesn't understand where the Web-based music industry is going. None of us do.

A personal example: as a journalist, I fully understand that my salary is paid from the revenue generated by the advertising that appears in the pages of my newspaper. As a practical matter in the performance of my job, those ads are an annoyance, because they interfere with the space available for my job, which is bringing truth to consumers of news. But they are necessary in my business. Accusations of sensationalism "to sell more newspapers" are fatuous, because we couldn't pay the light bill daily on the amount of revenue generated by single-copy and subscriber sales. As a result, in the 1990s, as more and more newspapers were going online, I resisted the notion, because no one could demonstrate how such a venture could be profitable. Yet, here I sit in 2002, able to read virtually any newspaper I want on the Web.

Yes, it means advertising and pop-up ads and all those little annoyances that many Internet surfers find so bloody inconvenient. But it's a fair trade-off to keep your favorite music alive. What isn't fair is the special treatment of over-the-air broadcasters, whose sweetheart deals with the recording industry over the years have included such things as payola, a scandal that profited two types: unscrupulous DJs and -- mirabile dictu! -- the recording industry.

As technology continues its headlong hurtle into the future, I predict an increasingly moribund recording industry as we now know it. Who needs Sony or Warner Brothers or Capitol or Verve when one can burn his own CDs at home, market them on the Web, make them available to sites such as SkyJazz for promotion and bring joy to listeners on a global scale?

The Internet provides a much more potent forum for music promotion than the limited signals of radio stations can provide. Indeed, many radio stations have taken to simulcasting on the Web, but this new fee has driven even some of the favored off the Internet. Why kill a sweetheart deal?

The ultimate flavor of this questionable dish is fishy, spiced with mendacity, greed and ignorance. The giant recording industry of my country, a land that loves its freedom, fears the very freedom we tout. The pity is, the fear is based on the consequences of that freedom.

By all means, pay the artists. I'll say it again and again. But do not stifle art by discriminating against a growing community of Webcasters, most of whom know more about the music they play than the average pimply-faced disc jockey not old enough to remember The Beatles, yet presumes to offer erroneous information about the music over the public airwaves. I've heard it time and again. It stinks. And the broadcasting giants should be ashamed.

Internet radio should be free of that discrimination. The art, the artists, and their fans, would be better served.