Thursday, February 5, 2009

      The Short Answer: Because commercial music format radio stations do not compete against each other to get the product they distribute – songs.
      The Result: The “Top 30” is usually half a dozen good songs, mixed in amongst a couple dozen other songs that would get blown right out of the “Top 1000” if they had to compete to be there.
      Since music stations buy a blanket license to air all songs, there is no way to get a song advantage over a competitor. In music radio, a hit is defined as product that is exactly the same as the competitor’s product. Hits are chosen ahead of time, by the suppliers of the product. In television, theatre, print media, talk radio - and everywhere else - a hit is defined as product that is better than the competitor’s product - because competitors have different product. And hits are chosen later, by the consumers. Unlike music radio, competitors have to try to deliver something better than the competitor to survive.
      A method evolved long ago which allows radio stations to know what their competitor will be playing, so they can make sure they will be playing the exact same thing. Promoters – who tell stations they had better play a particular song because it’s being heavily promoted, and thus will be a hit. The knowledge of heavy promotion itself is enough to get a station to add. It doesn’t matter if the song is any good, it doesn’t matter if the singer is known or unknown, a station can decide to add a song based on nothing more than the knowledge that the promotion is heavy, it’s coming from the right place, and so “everyone will be playing it.”
      Any station can make sure that when the winners walk up on stage at award time, their station had been airing all of them. Not just some of them. Not just more than their competitor. But every single one of the artists who win the awards. All the station has to do is just cooperate in the process that turns those previously selected songs into hits in the first place. By effectively engaging in non-competition with their competitors - by making sure that songs played on Station A are also played on Station B (and as a result, making sure that songs not played on Station A are also not played on Station B.)
      There are only three reasons for a broadcaster to take a risk on an unknown commodity. #1: Ability to keep it from a competitor. #2: Fear of losing it to a competitor. #3: It can be bought for less than the known commodity. The blanket broadcast license ensures that none of these three things can possibly happen with the main commodity of music radio – songs. There is no way to keep a song from a competitor, there is no fear of losing a song to a competitor, and every song costs exactly the same amount. A station has to pay exactly the same amount for a song by Joe Blow as a song by Elton John. In music radio, there can be no possible reward for taking a risk on any song not designated to be a hit - even if the person who has to keep it off the air personally loves it.
      Nobody got NBC TV to take a chance on Seinfeld by pointing out that it was being heavily promoted, that therefore all the other networks would be showing it, it would be picking up a lot of awards, so NBC may as well jump on board and start showing it. The strategy to get something on the air with competition is the exact opposite of the strategy with a blanket license. It's "Use it or Lose it." And Pass with Caution.
      There’s probably no perfect way of marketing songs to radio – but there’s probably a hundred ways of doing it better. Stations legally selling the song slots would be fairer than what’s going on now. It’s a distorted marketplace, with stations having to pay for something that somebody else is willing to pay them to take. Stations are given a precious, highly sought after publicly owned commodity, and station music directors have to either give those precious play slots away for free, or find creative ways of pretending to be giving them away for free. It’s no surprise that all the “pay for play” schemes that get discovered involve music radio. It’s the only place with this kind of marketing system.
      Songs could be marketed to stations using a bid/ask system like the stock market, where a station willing to take a chance on something unknown could have an advantage if they helped make it popular - by keeping it from the competition. “We bid X dollars, or commit to X number of plays, to get exclusive area rights to this song.” If a competitor thought it was safe to just toss it in the garbage without listening, they'd risk losing it. And if a competitor also wanted the same song, they’d simply have to make a better bid. This system works just fine for marketing stocks, bonds, cows, houses, TV shows, and every other commodity on earth - except songs to radio stations.
      There would still need to be agencies to license songs, collect money, and pay writers of course. Writers would still get paid. Just like playwrights, scriptwriters, authors, columnists, artists, cartoonists, etc. all get paid now. For those people, unlike songwriters, the licenses to use their works are exclusive, not blanket. ie, the users of the licenses cannot just sit in the weeds and wait for their competitor to risk using the created work first, see if he make it popular, and then if he does, follow suit. While the competitor is doing the exact same thing - which of course results in nobody using the created work. (This is referred to as putting a song “On Hold”, which in radio jargon just means putting a song in “Recycle Bin” And just like on your computer, all that is, is a stepping stone to putting a song in “Garbage Can.”) With a song good enough for airplay, but not designated as a hit, there’s no financial incentive for a station to actually play it. The only incentive is to keep it “on hold” for a little while, as free insurance in case somebody else does. And since nobody else has a financial incentive to actually play it either, it’s a perfect situation for anyone plugging a song designated to be a hit. More airplay slots available for them. Not so perfect for the listeners of course. But since they never know what they’re missing, most of them never figure it out.
      If you agree with this, please ask others to visit this blog, or post links to this blog.
      But not everybody agrees with these ideas. If you don’t agree, if you think that a blanket license is a good way to market and distribute entertainment product for consumption by the public, perhaps you might like to start your own blog - with the opposite goal - to have all entertainment product marketed and distributed by a blanket license, just like radio.
      It would definitely be more convenient. People wouldn’t have to bother reading more than one newspaper or magazine. If they each had a blanket license with no possibility for exclusive rights, competitors would stop competing on content and end up all carrying the exact same columns, the exact same editorials, the exact same cartoons - just the “top” ones. (as decided by a process the public would not be able to understand.)
      You wouldn’t need to change your TV dial, because, like radio, competing broadcasters would soon realize there was no point in trying to outdo each other, and they'd just start airing the exact same shows – just the “top” shows (as decided by a process the public would not be able to understand.) And surprise surprise, as a result of all that airplay, the Emmy winners would all be those exact same shows. Every station would be broadcasting "just the hits" - just like radio.
      Same with movies. But like radio, consumers would only have access to the “top” product. Since a blanket license to buy movies would make small independent films cost exactly the same as major studio megaproductions, some low budget movie from India about a kid winning a game show wouldn’t even make it past the first garbage can on the way to the silver screen. Since any movie could be safely discarded without fear of losing the rights to it, there would be no financial incentive for anyone to even open the box to look at it.
      Consumers should have the right to have a system which would deliver the very best music available, and to stop being used as pawns by record companies and radio working together to misuse the publicly owned airwaves to spoon feed listeners only whatever it is they are trying to sell. Take away the tool that makes it easy for them to do that, and they would be forced to make programming decisions by listening to songs, instead of song promoters.
       Of course there are some exceptions - some stations that do broadcast songs based on quality. But most stations just fall in line and play the songs that they have been told will become hits (and as a result of playing them to death, do become hits.) But quality has nothing to do with it.
       The average radio listener knows as much about radio as the average dog knows about food. They know how to consume the product, and as far as they know, they think they must somehow be magically getting the best product available (as selected by a process they do not understand.) But they haven’t got a clue what is being kept from them. Stations need to have an incentive to deliver the very best they can, to try to find something better than their competitor is delivering. That incentive is called competition.
      There have been many excellent songs on the radio over the years. We would still have heard all those great songs if they had to compete to be there. But what garbage might we have been spared? And what other great music might we have heard in it’s place? Every single three minute song slot taken up by a promoted garbage song took that slot away from something else we would have heard - if there had been a competition based system in place for deciding which songs get played on radio. A blanket license is a license to cheat not only the listeners out of hearing the best available. It’s also a license to cheat a lot of great artists and bands out of ever being heard.
      Radio stations should be forced to compete for product. When you switch your dial from local country station A to local country station B, you should not be hearing any of the same songs. Reward the station that worked to find and deliver something better than the competition. Not the station that simply obeyed promoters to make sure they were delivering the exact same thing as the competition. Take the blanket off the radio. Blankets Are For Beds.
                         ..Billy Calbo