CANBERRANS who like to listen to the radio on their mobile devices and computers would have noticed the online streams that once carried the local stations now repeat just one unhappy news story over and over: they are no longer available.
About 200 regional stations stopped playing online in recent months to avoid paying extra royalties demanded by the recorded music industry, backed up by a Federal Court ruling, on top of what the stations already pay to broadcast the exact same signals using radio waves, at the same time.
Michael Jones, the general manager of 2CC and 2CA’s parent company Radio Canberra, says this goes against the system that’s been in place for decades.
“It should be of no consequence… how big a station’s audience is,” says Jones, explaining that commercial stations have always paid a percentage of their gross revenue for copyright fees: over three per cent to songwriters via the Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) and up to one per cent to record companies and recording artists, through the Phonographic Performance Company of Australia (PPCA).
“So,” he explains, “…as our revenue grows, their revenue grows.”
Jones argues it shouldn’t matter what device listeners use to tune in.
“People don’t care what the technology is,” he says. “They just want to have convenience. For somebody in the general public, listening on their mobile phone or at their computer is no different to listening on a transistor radio or a home stereo system.”
The general policy direction of government has been to support this “device neutrality”. Jones says the radio stations have been going along with that for the past 13 years, “…and now it’s turned on its head because of the greedy record companies”.
It’s a fight that started in 2010, when the PPCA went to the Federal Court to dispute the commercial radio industry’s interpretation of a Ministerial Determination from 2000, a case they lost and then won on appeal in 2013, but it’s actually just one battle in a much longer war.
For years, the PPCA has railed against the legislation that has capped copyright fees paid by commercial radio to one per cent of each station’s revenue since 1969, arguing their members have been short-changed for decades.
The PPCA says it just wants a “fair go” for the relatively small Australian recording industry and Australian recording artists who share the royalties, while Commercial Radio Australia (CRA) sees this as a convenient hard-luck story confected by an organisation that largely represents the interests of massive multinational corporations, keen to maximise their own revenue.
Jones says the intention behind the 2000 Determination of the Minister for Communications, Information Technology and the Arts, Richard Alston, was the opposite to the way the Federal Court ruled in 2013.
“The [current] minister, Malcolm Turnbull, needs to reissue the Alston determination,” he says. “Otherwise what they have is the Federal Court overturning standing government policy. [The court’s ruling] wasn’t a decision saying that an online simulcast is not the same as the broadcast, it was a technicality on the wording [of the Alston determination].”
Turnbull appears unlikely to budge, and in the meantime the PPCA has set up an interim payment scheme while they await a permanent system to be determined by the Copyright Tribunal a year from now.
“Then, when they implement their final scheme, which is going to cost us a hell of a lot more, they will backdate that final scheme to January 31st, 2014,” says Jones, who believes “the minister has swallowed the record industry’s line on this issue”.
“We need him to make a determination now. In the meantime, radio listeners suffer, artists suffer because they’re not having their music promoted as well as they could, and record companies are going to suffer. We all suffer.”
Canadian megastar Neil Young is quoted as saying that “radio’s the best promotion that [musicians have] got”. That’s true, according to Jones, “it’s just a shame they don’t see it”.
“Why would they bite their nose off to spite their face? The more successful that radio is, whether it’s through broadcast, internet streaming or whatever, the more successful they will be. It’s not about them looking after poor, starving musicians, it’s about them lining their shareholders’ pockets.”