noncomMUSIC Alliance – Strengthening Public Radio Music in a Streaming World

Some of you have had the chance to run a traditional commercial radio campaign and you’ll probably understand this more than most. While it’s thrilling to hear your song as the well-known DJ is saying your band’s name on the “real” radio station, the reality is that it doesn’t move the needle much in terms of money, sales, or spins. Back in the good ol’ days of record stores an act may have sold a few more copies regionally. But now, it’s not like it’s going to spike your Spotify streams, certainly not as much as getting added to a playlist would. Mostly, it’s about getting your name out there, maybe making a fan of the PD, and hopefully getting some fresh blood to headline shows.

Unless you have a national campaign across a whole swath of formatted radio stations with genuine adds and multi-plays every day in multiple regions, coupled with label ads and a tour in support of a single doing in-studio hits, it just doesn’t really matter. These stations have major labels, promoters, and managers to deal with; they can’t be bothered with booking you for an interview. The fans are passive. They are listening at work, they’re waiting for their favorite song by a national act, or just trying to win tickets.

This isn’t your target.

Now, I’m willing to bet that many more of you have had some experience with getting your music on non-comm (non-commercial or listener supported) radio, known as “public radio.” These include independent formats, college radio stations, and NPR-sister stations; CPR, KCRW, OPB, KEXP, WERS, WXPN, and so many more.

These stations move the needle. They want you to do an in-studio over lunch, they want you to do station IDs, they have rabid fans that are actually clamoring for music to crush on, looking for the next show or festival. They want to use your music in promos, in video, and on podcasts. They want to sponsor your show at that mid-level venue. They genuinely want to be a part of your musical story.

This is your target.

But they don’t have the budget the big stations do; they are listener supported, and yet, they must deal with the same constraints of music licensing regulations as the commercial stations. So, how do we support them supporting us?

I got the opportunity to chat with Michael Riksen (pictured below), VP of Policy at NPR, about his new role as the executive director of the noncomMUSIC Alliance initiative, a group of public radio music stations and music stakeholders dedicated to simplifying music licensing for the non-commercial radio world.

I usually start by asking what your background in music is and how you got your start. Are you a writer, performer, manager, or just an avid supporter?

Well, I have played instruments. I sing in the shower. In junior high I played the trumpet and the trombone. Sometimes, I sing opera alone – the key word there being “alone.” I’m really a policy guy. A music lover and supporter.

What is the noncomMUSIC Alliance, and what is its mission?

First, we are trying to educate lawmakers and stakeholders that public radio plays a very unique role in music discovery and community and is not geared to make profit. The currency we have is public service – not dollars and cents. We help break artists, we support musicians in Jazz, Classical, and unique formats. From there, what we are asking for is licensing simplicity for public music radio. Access to music is a whole lot simpler today but the variety of access is matched by the rights management and complexities of licensing. It is necessary to protect rights holders and we absolutely want to be a part of getting musicians, writers, artists, and rights holders paid fairly; but for many of these stations, the commercial licensing requirements are a barrier to the public service role.

So, a different music licensing layer for non-commercial radio?

Yes, something like that. Simplifying music licensing procedures for public broadcasting via traditional and digital platforms. Removing unneeded constraints that prevent local public radio music stations from introducing and promoting new and emerging artists and broadcasting educational music content. By streamlining copyright licensing requirements for public radio music stations, the U.S. can ensure that noncommercial local music stations, artists, and the music economy thrive. To nail down the specifics, we have a terrific advisory board working hard to find the right balance of policy and priorities; our current members include Roger LaMay (WXPN), Brenda Barnes (KING), Amy Niles (WBGO), Tom Mara (KEXP), Abby Goldstein (WYEP), Judy McAlpine (USC Radio Group), and Nick Kereakos (American Public Media)

What specific licensing laws are you aiming to change?

Well, public music radio is now almost always digital; that means on-air broadcasts with online streams and podcasts coupled with video platforms in addition to live performances, in-studio and in the community.

So, for instance, if a station loves a band and wants to promote their latest song. It’s no longer just played on the radio under a blanket license. Now they need a license to stream it, another to play it in the podcast, a separate license to use it in a video clip, a separate license for the live recording, and on and on. Often, as you know as a music licensor, this may entail getting permissions from multiple writers, publishers, and labels. That’s fine for a profitable station, but it’s too cumbersome for a little non-comm station just trying to turn their listeners on to new music.

To be clear, the Alliance still intends to pay for music use?  

Our partners want to be a part of the success and livelihood of those who write and play the music that our communities love. We are interested in simplifying the process. In most cases, the artists our member stations serve are the label, they are the publisher, as well as the songwriter, and artist. We want there to be a simpler and economical pathway to get artist’s music to as many people as possible – in as many ways as possible.

Are you planning on amending the Music Modernization Act, or will you be pursuing separate federal legislation as it pertains to licensing reform?

We discussed this with the current bill sponsors and it did not seem like this was the best time to get our specific needs addressed. We feel that the MMA is an important part of music licensing reform and addresses many of the pressing needs of the modern music market, but it only highlights the complexities we are trying to address in a non-commercial public radio music setting.

How many partners are in currently?

We have over 100 partners now. Mostly comprised of public radio music stations across the country. There is a learning process that takes time for the general managers. We know we are working to address their licensing concerns by easing the complexities and legal requirements.

Who can be a partner, what does it cost, what are the benefits?

This is unfolding conceptually as we put together the building blocks of legislation and a centered community around public music radio stations. Initially, we started with inviting stations in the communities that serve the music lovers to be partners. But we also know that the public radio music system includes artists, performers, managers, labels, lawyers and more to be a part of that alliance. So, we are now reaching out to all stakeholders to join the Alliance. There is no cost to join. As we move forward legislation and craft solutions, we will be keeping our members updated and looking for their input and help in reaching out to get the legislation passed.

Can independent artists who believe in the public radio mission get involved?

Absolutely! First, get your music to these stations, reach out to the program directors, interact with these communities, that’s the first step. The more vibrant the music communities are the better the stations will perform and it will result in a stronger music ecosystem. Then, go to noncommusic.org to learn about what we are doing and click on “Partner” to join.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael St. James is the founder and creative director of St. James Media, specializing in music licensing, publishing, production and artist development.

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