Monday, March 19, 2007

Taxing Web Music

Are the days of “free” online radio numbered already?

A new U.S. tariff on digital music streaming may be the death knell for nascent Internet radio services like my beloved – at least in the form that they’ve been previously constituted.

Right now, you can stream Pandora to your desktop merely by agreeing to a few unobtrusive ad placements on the graphic interface. Considering most people likely keep the program running in the background, the ads are of little consequence. And what a feast Pandora offers, particularly if your choice of music ranges into “deep catalogue” material like bop or blues. My Delta blues station serves up a ton of rare stuff by Blind Boy Fuller, Son House and Bukka White, while my “Lee Morgan” station regularly feeds me prime Blue Note cuts. When you’re feeling too lazy or distracted to pull out your own tunes or just want to leave the driving to others, Pandora is a work-at-home-man’s paradise.

Pandora has always struck me as an intelligent business model: the Oakland-based company licenses the music from the copyright holders, and provides one-click links to Amazon and iTunes, for those who want to purchase either an artist’s album or individual songs. It seems like the ideal marketing vehicle for artists not associated with major labels, and those savvy enough to retain the rights to their catalogue material. The fact that forward-looking indie artists like trumpeter Dave Douglas jumped on the service to provide access to their music reinforced my enthusiasm.

And it’s not just commercial services like Pandora that will be affected by the change.

The proposed tariff also spells trouble for National Public Radio, which streams items from many of its arts and entertainment shows via its website. These include music-laden feature reviews and profiles by NPR correspondents like Ashley Kahn and Kevin Whitehead, and concert features by a wide range of non-mainstream artists.

Both Pandora and NPR are planning to challenge the new tariff.

Terrestrial stations that have been using the Internet to broaden their audience base are also under siege. That spells disappointment for those around the world who have become fans of specialty stations like Newark, New Jersey-based WBGO – a jazz powerhouse – and KCRW – a campus-community station based in Santa Monica, California, which has a remarkable track record of discovering new talent, thanks to the ears of program director Nic Harcourt.

You can read more about the issue here.

If you’re a U.S. resident and care about this, write your representative in Congress.

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