The Irving Azoff-founded performing rights organization GRM recently sued the Radio Music Licensing Committee on the grounds of antitrust violations, indicative of a rising tide of songwriters and performers seeking fairer rates for their work.
Guest Post by Erin M. Jacobson on Forbes
Chairman & CEO, Azoff MSG Entertainment Irving Azoff speaks onstage at TheWrap's 7th Annual TheGrill at Montage Beverly Hills on September 26, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Global Music Rights (“GMR”), a performance rights organization founded by music industry mogul Irving Azoff, sued the Radio Music Licensing Committee (“RMLC”) this week for antitrust violations, claiming that the RMLC’s committee of radio stations seeks to discourage competition amongst these stations with the common goal of keeping payments to songwriters and music publishers artificially low and using its collective power to do so.
As I explained in a previous article, the RMLC recently filed a lawsuit against GMR claiming that GMR has created an artificial monopoly over works in its repertoire since GMR can dictate license fees and deny licenses to perform the music it represents if music licensees are not willing to pay GMR’s fees. Azoff founded GMR to offer a more boutique experience for the writers in its repertoire and seek higher licensing fees than ASCAP and BMI who are subject to government consent decrees and judicially restricted rates. The RMLC argued that the license fees required by GMR are exorbitant and seeks to lower them by forcing GMR to submit to judicial rate-setting proceedings, which would require a judge to mandate the rates GMR can charge its licensees.
GMR has been in negotiations with the RMLC since its inception, but still have not reached a deal because GMR will not agree to judicial rate-setting proceedings. GMR’s complaint states that its lawsuit is not in response to the RMLC’s previously filed antitrust suit against GMR, but rather “the group's illegal conduct including price fixing, information sharing and threats of group boycotting.” GMR, who did reach a deal with two individual radio stations, argues that all stations should compete for the music they play, rather than banding together to force the music industry to succumb to low rates in order for music to be played. According to a press release from GMR, radio stations currently pay only about 4% of their revenue to songwriters and music publishers. To further put things into perspective, the RMLC represents over 10,000 radio stations that collectively bring in about $16 billion in advertising revenue annually, whereas GMR is an independent performance rights organization representing 70 songwriters and earns under $100 million per year.
As also explained in my prior article, radio stations rely on music for their content. Radio stations and other music content platforms repeatedly seek to reduce compensation to the songwriters and music rights owners that create the very music that establishes their listenership and drives their revenues. Although the stations behavior makes sense from a profit margin standpoint, it is still surprising that radio would seek to so significantly undervalue the music that comprises the foundation of its product.
The parties are at a standoff because if radio does not want to pay GMR’s rates, then radio stations can refuse to play works in the GMR repertoire. This is unfortunate for the artists in the GMR repertoire because they would lose the promotion and performance income provided by radio airplay. However, the radio stations themselves would also suffer because it would harm stations’ popularity with listeners if stations cannot play a requested new single by a GMR writer like Drake or Pharrell Williams, or even classic compositions by John Lennon or The Eagles. If radio listeners stop listening to stations because they do not play the music their listeners want to hear, then advertisers will stop buying advertising on those stations and move on to whatever other platforms their target markets have adopted. The RMLC is banking on being successful with this lawsuit as they were in their recent and very similar fight with performance rights organization SESAC. However, if the RMLC is unsuccessful at forcing GMR to submit to judicial rate proceedings, then radio stations will have the choice of either paying higher license fees for GMR artists or losing advertising revenue, a dilemma in which it would probably be to the stations’ advantage to pay the higher license fees requested by GMR than losing its advertisers.
Azoff said, “I will not stop the fight for fairness to artists and songwriters,” and he is not alone in his principles. Both creators and professionals within the music industry have seen rates steadily decline and are tired of accepting undervalued rates. Simultaneous to GMR’s battle for higher rates, songwriters and performance rights organizations have been combatting the United States Department of Justice amid other restrictions on music licensing. While the music industry is not dead yet, many within the industry are concerned about the viability of music as a career because without proper payment to songwriters and music publishers, the creation of music may be relegated to a hobby if the majority of creators cannot make a living from creating music.
*This article does not constitute legal advice.
Erin M. Jacobson is a music attorney whose clients include Grammy and Emmy Award winners, legacy clients and catalogues, songwriters, music publishers, record labels, and independent artists and companies. She is based in Los Angeles where she handles a wide variety of music agreements and negotiations, in addition to owning and overseeing all operations for Indie Artist Resource, the independent musician’s resource for legal and business protection.