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Performance Tax Anxiety

Having spent a good portion of last week on the road and on conference calls talking about the latest Performance Tax developments, I heard a lot from broadcasters on the subject. For those blissfully unaware of this legislative battle, the recording industry has been seeking a financial parachute from broadcasters to help slow the rate of its descent into an economic abyss. The irony of course is that if illegal music downloads on the Internet are what has caused the recording industry’s plunge, reaching out to drag broadcasters into the abyss with them merely weakens an ally in the battle to protect content from illegal distribution over the Internet.

Famously dubbed a performance “tax” by broadcasters, the legislation sought by the recording industry would require broadcasters to pay royalties to the recording industry for playing music on-air. Beyond the obvious short term benefit of royalty checks from broadcasters that choose to retain a music-based format, the recording industry hopes the passage of a U.S. law requiring such royalties for broadcasts in the U.S. will cause foreign countries to release royalties already being collected for airplay of U.S. artists in those countries. Unfortunately, because most of the record companies are now foreign-owned, much of that money, along with royalties paid by U.S. broadcasters, would wind up in foreign hands, undercutting any argument for this “found money” being an economic benefit in the U.S. All of the royalty funds would come from the U.S., but only a portion of those funds would stay in the U.S. However, one would hope that at least some of those royalties, if they do come to pass, would actually reach the U.S. artists responsible for creating the music that the recording industry has been selling and reselling to us over the years.

Broadcasters have been successful in blocking Performance Tax legislation because of good grass roots efforts to remind Congress that radio promotes the sale of music at no charge to the record labels or to the artists that have ridden radio airplay to fame (and whose records and concert tickets continue to sell because of radio airplay). The long, sordid history of payola — the record labels’ efforts to curry airplay via cash and other payments to radio station programmers — supports broadcasters’ proposition that the “value” of radio airplay exceeds any “costs” it imposes on the recording industry.

It was therefore with great surprise that many radio broadcasters heard last week that negotiating teams for the two industries were floating a multi-part proposal to resolve the legislative impasse — a compromise that would require, for the first time, that artist (as opposed to songwriter) royalties be collected on broadcast airplay of music. While the proposal has some attractive features for broadcasters (most importantly the inclusion of FM receiving chips in cellphones), I got an earful from broadcasters absolutely incensed at the notion of promoting music and concert sales, and then being charged for doing it.

If any member of Congress thinks that “radio promotes music sales” is just a broadcaster talking point for meetings, encountering a broadcaster last week would have decisively corrected that impression. Some broadcasters I talked to had such a visceral reaction to the very concept of such payments that it didn’t matter to them what the beneficial points of the proposal were. For them, it was as if someone had told them to “pay the ransom to the kidnappers and hope for the best.” Some appreciated that it could be the pragmatic thing to do to put the issue behind them, but still found the very concept reprehensible. To be sure, there is money involved and that can sway a person’s thinking. However, a number of the broadcasters I spoke with were so fundamentally opposed to the concept that they would reject the idea even if other parts of the proposal actually resulted in more money coming in from the proposal than going out.

I understand that perspective, but lawyers are trained to assess the options, and to assist their clients in choosing the best option for that client. Often, but not always, the “best” option is the one most economically beneficial to the client. Here, some broadcasters are not interested in the economics, but in the unfairness of being forced to pay a performance royalty as any part of the package. Despite that, all broadcasters should give the compromise proposal a careful look, if only to sharpen their understanding of the numerous issues in play and how they might affect the future of radio broadcasting. There are any number of reasons why the proposal might not gain momentum, or even be possible given the dynamics of Washington, and I hope to address those in a future post. For now, radio broadcasters should suppress the instinct to reflexively ignore it, and instead talk to their colleagues and counsel about the issues this proposal raises for their future, and for the future of their industry.