The sad state of webcasting - a personal struggle

I still remember the technology of my freshman year in college. It was the year of the mp3, the year of Napster, and the year when high-speed college connections and cable modems made webcasting something more than an ambitious project undertaken by a select few.

I believed then (and I still do) that unregulated webcasting was the most feasible path to recovering true democracy on the airwaves. With just a little bit of free software or a subscription to the free Live365 service, you could program your own radio station and buck the system. So what if commercial radio hardly ever plays Belle and Sebastian? Put them on your playlist. Radio stations could finally show the same basic diversity as the population at large.

I tried to run a Live365 station in those days – on a Mac there were limitations. The web interface was a bit clunky and slow. But I accepted that it was part of a new revolution, and I was willing to sacrifice a little bit of time to program Jill Sobule, Tom Waits, Shonen Knife, and the Monkees on the same station.

Then the lawsuits hit. How dare we broadcast without a license? Did we have no sense of decency? How could we steal from the artists this way? We were daring to play music for the world to hear – and when were the artists going to get their royalty check?

At this point, I’d like to point out something that’s been bothering me, lately. At the time, we were constantly told that one of the problems with webcasting was that the signal could travel across the world. We were more insidious than the off-shore pirate broadcasters of decades past, because we didn’t have to worry about failing signal strength.

This was – and still is – a crock.

With Live365’s free plan of the day, you got the bandwidth for 365 simultaneous listeners. Yes, those listeners could be from anywhere in the world – our “pirate” signals could reach from Virginia to Bangkok with ease.

But we could only reach 365 people out of a population of billions. With a legal, low-powered FM station, I could have reached more people in the dormitory I lived in than would ever hear my web station worldwide. Our signal was limited by our bandwidth – and it took a lot of money to get the bandwidth necessary to rival a true pirate station.

Anyway, back to the point. The Recording Industry used the same rhetoric that would take down Napster and turn it into the bastardized industry puppet that it is today – only this time, they actually realized the sales potential of what they were working to destroy. So instead of shutting it down, they decided to do what they do best – commercialize it and make it safe solely for the corporations.

All of this comes up because of the death of my Live365 station and my subsequent experiments with Rogue Amoeba’s Nicecast.

It’s sad that – as always – the recording industry’s attempts to curtail the actions of music fans made the world safe for the corporations – and more exciting for the pirates. Those of us who like to try to stay within the law, however, suffer. Nicecast is a fantastic piece of software. It’s simple to use, quick to set up, and very powerful. I loved experimenting with it and I highly reccommend it to anybody who is more daring (or better-funded) than I.

The problem is with the legal hoops one has to leap through to get a legal webcast put together – including massive licensing fees that individuals can hardly afford to pay. On a rough average, it’s been stated that you can expect to pay a minimum of $100 per month, per listener – with even those who only tune in for a couple of seconds counting as listeners. And that’s solely the fees paid to SoundExchange – a non-incorporated subsidiary of the RIAA. In addition, you’ll have to pay fees to ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, and your programming will have to comply with restrictions limiting the number of songs your stationc an play by a single artist, the number of times a song can be played, and the number of times the word “love” appears in any 24-hour period’s worth of lyrics. Okay, I made that last one up – but it certainly seems that way.

(On a side note, I’ve had a couple of people advise me that as long as I stayed away from music represented by the RIAA, I would be safe. This is not true. SoundExchange is authorized to collect fees on behalf of all artists, including those who are not represented by the RIAA – and even those who oppose the RIAA)

In addition, one should note that those fees are estimates. $100 is, at best, a minimum. The real fee is calculated based on performances (individual plays of songs) and listeners. And, as I mentioned earlier, one person tuning in for five seconds of a song counts as one performance and one listener.

With all of the hoops and exorbitant prices, the simplest legal option is, well, Live365 – which is no longer free and now has (comparatively) severe bandwidth limitations.

Of course, a lot of this software allows you to throttle down the number of listeners you allow at a time – so you could run a legal broadcast with about five or ten listeners at a time, right?

Well, no. Unlicensed low-power broadcast (very low-power – one-block radius low-power) is legal, but there’s no such condition to the regulations regarding webcasting. You webcast, you pay a license fee. Or you face the RIAA’s wrath. And with the RIAA pushing AudibleMagic for all it’s worth, it’s clear there’s going to be plenty of wrath to go around.

The saddest part of all of this, of course, is that it didn’t have to be this way. Webcasting was much less of a problem than Napster, and people are still arguing about whether or not Napster was a problem at all. But the law went with the money. And democracy suffers.

Long story short – for now, Radio Free ArtMachine is dead – and will probably remain so. I don’t wish to take it pirate, and I can’t afford to do it legally. And before anybody mentions it – I’ve been looking into RadioBlogging. It’s intriguing, but it’s just not the same.

Radio Free ArtMachine is dead. Who mourns for democracy in broadcast?

One Response to “The sad state of webcasting - a personal struggle”

  1. Art Machine » Blog Archive » And so we meet again… Says:

    [...] the name sounds familiar, it’s because I’ve written about SoundExchange before. Once about how they helped to kill webcasting, and once about how they collect money for artists who don’t even like them—and get to [...]

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