Internet Radio Royalty Hikes Threaten the Music Genome Project
by Nancy Scola, Sat May 05, 2007 at 08:52:37 AM EDT
If all goes well, tomorrow Adam Conner will be posting an MP3 audio interview that he put together and I participated in with Tim Westergren, the founder of the Pandora Internet radio service, on the Copyright Royalty Board's recently announced royalty rate hikes. Pandora is, in a word, awesome. And the Music Genome Project, what powers the backend of Pandora, is doubly-awesome.
As powered by the Music Genome Project, Pandora is a freakishly innovative way to (1) connect listeners to new music and (2) promote popular major-label artists in the very same way as artists recording on GarageBand from home. Tim, a musician himself, has been building the Music Genome Project since 2000. The way it works is this. Each song that comes into the project is treated blindly, meaning that it matters little whether the artist is well known or not or what musical genre label with which they're usually tagged. Fifty or so actual humans -- many of them musicians -- sit down in an office in Oakland and evaluate each song, one by one. What they're listening for is any number of some 400 or so musical "genes." Once a song's genes are mapped, it's entered into the Pandora system.
Then a music lover, me for example, hops over to Pandora.com. Say I happen at the moment to be enamored with the Beyonce song "Irreplaceable." (It might be time to admit that while I do love music, I have seriously limited tastes. This is exactly why I need Pandora!) I enter that song in the magic Pandora interface, and the system says, "Irreplaceable," hmm, what we've got here is a track that features distinctive musical genes, including: modern R&B stylings, acoustic sonority, extensive vamping, major key tonality, acoustic rhythm guitars, and vocal harmonies. Already, I'm a more educated music consumer. What's more, Pandora searches through its database, identifies a song with similar genes, and plays it for me. First up is Stacie Orrico's "Beautiful Awakening." Who is Stacie Orrico? I have no idea. And Pandora doesn't care if she's a major label artist or a singer who submitted her own CD to the Music Genome Project. If she's registered with SoundExchange, she's paid royalty fees. And if I like her music enough, with a couple clicks, I can buy it right through iTunes or Amazon.
In the interview, Tim talks about how he's been thrilled so far to pay SoundExchange fair rates for music -- it helps streamline the licensing process for digital broadcasters like Pandora. But the Copyright Royalty Board's recently announced royalty hikes will make it impossible for Pandora to continue operating, which will in turn prevent the public from reaping the benefits of the Music Genome Project. Our copyright regime is intended to encourage innovation. That's not me talking, that's the founding fathers in the United States Constitution: the goal is to "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts."
There's legislation in the House, H.R. 2060 -- the Internet Radio Equality Act, introduced by Democrat Jay Inslee and Republican Don Manzullo, that would vacate the Copyright Royalty Board's decision and establish more reasonable royalty rates. H.R. 2060 already has 42 co-sponsors but could certainly use a lot more.