Clear Channel: Swap Exposure for Royalties

A settlement between the Federal Communications Commission and major broadcasters requires them to commit a certain amount of airtime to independent musicians. But Clear Channel Communications, one of the four broadcasters that settled, is asking independent musicians to agree to forgo royalties in exchange for the exposure.

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And now we go to promises made by some of the nation's largest broadcasters. Earlier this spring, four companies, including Clear Channel Communications, reached a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission over charges of payola. At the same time, the company's offered to give hundreds of hours of airtime to independent and local musicians. But Clear Channel's first steps to add their songs to playlists has left some musicians disappointed.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY: John Strohm is an independent musician who'd love to hear his songs played on a station owned by the nation's largest broadcaster.

Mr. JOHN STROHM (Musician): To have access to airplay in Clear Channel stations is very appealing. It's one of the few ways that an artist can reach a broad audience.

ULABY: Strohm's music has been on Clear Channel stations before, when his earlier band, Blake Babies, was on a major label. He has a new solo album out next month.

(Soundbite of song)

ULABY: Like most musicians, Strohm has a day job. He's an entertainment lawyer who represents songwriters, musicians and independent record companies. So he paid extra attention to the language posted on Clear Channel station Web sites intended to help local artists submit songs for airplay. Musicians are asked for MP3s and information about their bands. Then they must click on a licensing agreement that would require them to forego royalty payments in return for having Clear Channel play their songs.

Mr. STROHM: If artists are willing to do it, then it's, I guess, legally enforceable. Is it a step in the right direction for artists trying to make a living? Certainly not.

ULABY: An indie musician whose song goes into heavy rotation at KCCQ in Iowa, for example, might end up giving up money. But that would not stop musician Bob Baker from giving up his royalties, even in perpetuity.

Mr. BOB BAKER (Musician): Yeah. I would go ahead and do it. Sure.

ULABY: Baker wrote "The Guerrilla Music Marketing Handbook." He says musicians should ask themselves if they really prefer obscurity to losing royalties for one song. Suppose, he says, your song caught on and you didn't get your pennies per play.

Mr. BAKER: So are you really worse off than you were before? Because once you have the attention of an audience, you have some popularity, you have some mind share; you can leverage that and turn it into revenue in other ways.

ULABY: Concert ticket sales, CD sales, visits to your Web page. But indie musicians are not the only ones who must sometimes choose between royalties and exposure in a fast-changing digital marketplace, says David Oxenford.

Mr. DAVID OXENFORD (Attorney): You know, it's not a different standard than signed musicians.

ULABY: Oxenford is a partner in a firm specializing in broadcast law. He says it's common now for major label artists to waive royalties in order to promote their songs.

Mr. OXENFORD: Especially for new artists, the record companies often allow a radio station or an Internet entertainment site to have a download. iTunes music has their free downloads every week.

ULABY: It's still dispiriting to some musicians that the good-faith agreement reached with broadcasters has become yet another bone of contention over royalties and rights. Clear Channel did not respond to requests for an interview. And the president of the American Association of Independent Music, which negotiated the agreement, said in an e-mailed statement that he was optimistic that local and independent musicians will get a fair shake from the broadcasting companies.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News, Washington.

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