Urban Ouftitters is now claiming to be the “world’s number one vinyl seller.” According to Buzzfeed, Calvin Hollinger, chief administrative officer for the Philadelphia-based clothing retail chain made the claim in a meeting with analysts yesterday: “Music is very, very important to the Urban customer…in fact, we are the world’s number one vinyl seller.”

Hollinger’s claim hasn’t been sourced or verified, but even if technically true, it could easily be misleading; the reality is that independent record stores certainly sell more vinyl than Urban Outfitters, but they don’t have a single corporate owner.

To put that data point in context, you have to think through the larger changes in music retail. While standalone chain music stores like Sam Goody and Tower Records once dominated physical retail, the niche they once occupied has been filled in by 1) big box megastores like Target and Best Buy—mostly selling the biggest mainstream releases 2) independent record stores—serving their communities as they’ve always done with a diverse selection and personal curation and 3) online retailers (from centralized outlets like Insound to general retailers like Amazon to direct sales from labels and bands). Big box retailers dominate CD sales, but mostly haven’t gotten seriously interested in stocking vinyl, so it’s not surprising that between 200+ stores in major markets and an online storefront, Urban Outfitters could achieve numbers that outpace any other single retailer.

The news reports made me curious, so this afternoon, I visited our local Urban Outfitters (in DC’s Chinatown neighborhood) to check out their offerings. I found a small selection, heavy on major label reissues, but with a few indie gems. The prices were notably higher than any of the independent stores in town, and weirdly, if somehow unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a single local release; a pretty serious oversight in a city with as rich a musical legacy as DC’s. There were a number of turntables for sale; unfortunately, they were the inexpensive faux-vintage Crosley variety which sound terrible and have a reputation for destroying records.  

Most amusing was the window display of “employee picks,” emulating a ubiqutious feature of indie stores, though such displays don’t usually include multiplatinum releases from decades past like Nirvana’s Unplugged and Outkast’s Aquameni.

Urban Outfitters probably has played a supporting role in the vinyl revival, and perhaps deserves some credit for making the format available as an entry point for certain young consumers for whom a shopping mall is more geographically accessible than an actual record store. But it would be a big mistake to think that the retailer has a dominant role in the marketplace the way that iTunes, for example, utterly dominates the digital download market.

(It’s also worth mentioning here that complete and accurate numbers tracking the resurgence of vinyl sales can be hard to find, because the format is especially popular in niche/collector/microindie communities that aren’t necessarily reporting to Soundscan or working through distributors that do.)

Of course, as long as it means artists are getting paid, we’re pleased whenever record sales (and licensed band merchandise sales) go up.  But there are reasons to question how artist-friendly Urban Outfitters is, given the company’s repeated issues with plagiarizing independent designers who can’t afford legal counsel to sue for copyright infringement (this, incidentally is a good case for the small claims copyright court recently debated in Congress). Not to mention the endless parade of controversies over appropriation of Native American culture, and other offensive, socially regressive, and casually racist designs. Hopefully, we won’t hear about them selling Skrewdriver vinyl next.



Ten years ago this week, Arcade Fire released Funeral, an album that not only transformed this once-ramshackle Montreal orchestro-rock collective into instant indie-rock icons, but forever transformed the very concept of indie rock from a fringe movement born of economic circumstance into an aspirational career model.

Stuart Berman is great, and everything else in this piece is insightful and accurate. But I’m not sure I’m on board with this final assertion. There have been periodic indie-rock gold rushes more or less continuously since 1987. The mere existence of a sellouts-decrying song called “Gimme Indie Rock” released in 1991 is enough to remind us that what we’re now calling “grunge” or “alternative” was very much indie at the time. (See also.) The more interesting question here is: why did indie suddenly become the power word? Even the indie rush that immediately preceded Funeral, that of the Strokes and White Stripes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, was identified as garage rock (largely by the UK music press). Why, after nearly two decades of mainstream-bubbling indie getting renamed, did we decide to just stick with the basic classification?

The other idea here is that indie is more commercially viable than it ever was. Again, I’m not quite sure that’s right. Indie seems to be selling about as well as it always has, at least since the 90s (assuming here that we’re including all the indie music that got called something else, like “alternative,” in that count). However, it is charting higher. But as we know, sales of everything have been going down over the last decade, and it’s now possible to get a top 10 hit with less than 50,000 in sales, whereas ten years ago that would have been considered a flop. So here is another question: if MP3s didn’t currently exist, would indie still be charting this high? Should we “adjust for inflation” for indie just as we do pop, so that some of these releases would have gone platinum in the CD era? Or is it just something about the demographics of the indie audience that they’re still buying while everyone else stopped?

Very interesting questions!

Who’s to blame for commercial radio’s worst new idea?


Imagine a radio format that plays “twice as many songs” by only playing about half of each song, in an attempt to cater to “the needs and lifestyle of today’s multitasking, attention challenged listeners.” It may sound like a joke straight out of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, but it’s the actual concept behind QuickHitz, a syndicated radio format that is currently making news for all the wrong reasons.

The new format was launched with little fanfare in 2012 and was picked up in 2013 by a station in Decatur, Illinois; described by its inventors as “a game-changing mass appeal music format,” it involves editing pop songs down to about two minutes, making it possible to play 24 songs an hour. But this month, when the format came to the top 40 station AMP Radio in the larger market of Calgary, Alberta, controversy erupted.

Of course, for about as long as broadcasting has existed, artists and labels have been tailoring their releases to better suit the needs of commercial broadcasters. Radio stations are routinely serviced with “Single Mixes” optimized for radio airplay, which involve a number of changes from album versions. Lead vocals may be made louder and more present to cut through on a variety of reproduction environments, from car stereos to tinny clock radio speakers. There are also edits for time:  introductions are cut down and guitar solos are truncated or excised completely in an attempt to emphasize hooks and stay under the 4 minute mark. And, of course, there are edits for content, removing drug references and/or profanity, as with Cee Lo Green’s cleaned-up hit “Forget You.” For major label releases especially, it’s not been uncommon for different mixes to be released targeting different radio formats—more guitars for rock stations, but less for top 40 stations, for example. TLC’s “Waterfalls” featured a rap verse when I heard it on my local R&B station in 1994, but now when I hear it on an adult hits format, the rap is missing.

One key difference is that those decisions about edits have mostly come from the labels and artists, not the broadcasters.  Quickhitz, in contrast, appears to be doing the edits themselves. In this, too, they’re not without precedent. TV shows like American Idol only rarely feature performances of entire songs, often skipping verses and choruses in a rush to feature a song’s emotional peaks before viewers change the channel.

Unsurprisingly, some artists have found this sort of thing distasteful. Canadian singer-songwriter Jann Arden has railed against the format and the Calgary station’s parent company Newcap on social media, describing Quickhitz to the Calgary Herald as the “massacring of an artist’s work…It happens all the time, but this is extreme.” Then, in an unflattering move that recalls the Dixie Chicks’ fight with some country radio stations for speaking their minds, Newcap VP of Programming Steve Jones allegedly ordered his entire roster of stations to remove Arden’s music from their playlists “immediately and permanently.” 

It’s easy to get outraged at this, and to find this lowest-common-denominator approach insulting to artists and listeners alike, but the issue is bigger than a couple stations and one controversial new format. To understand Quickhitz, you have to look at the bigger structural forces and policy decisions that triggered commercial radio’s race to the bottom. In the US, you can start by looking at the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which deregulated radio and allowed a few companies such as Infinity and Clear Channel (recently rebranded as I Heart Radio) to buy up hundreds of local stations, drastically limiting consumer choice and narrowing the scope of competition across the marketplace. Anticompetitive practices of the new giants forced even smaller companies to become more risk-averse, focusing on familiarity and avoiding tune-outs. Local DJs were laid off en masse, often replaced with computerized playlists that tended to be repetitive and homogenous. (Meanwhile, the National Association of Broadcasters, a trade organization representing the interests of the big broadcasters continues to push the FCC go even further and scrap the remaining ownership caps on radio.) And while we’re also talking about Canadian radio, Canada hasn’t been immune to the problems associated with ownership consolidation either.  

Of course, there are better ways for commercial radio programmers to ensure that listeners don’t get bored. They could, for example, simply play a broader selection of tracks. Quickhitz is marketed to stations in part as a remedy for “listener fatigue” induced by repetitive choruses, but that fatigue is itself a product of commercial radio’s repetitive playlists. (In other words, people wouldn’t get as annoyed by the repetitive chorus of Pharrell’s “Happy” if they weren’t hearing that song so many times a day.) Programmers could also consider more music from independent labels, which now comprise 34.6% of the music marketplace but are largely shut out from commercial radio. They could hire knowledgeable local DJs who could share interesting context about the music­—and about what’s happening in their local communities.

Unfortunately, to find that kind of risk-taking in US broadcasting today, we mostly have to look to college, public, and community radio stations and the internet. Ownership consolidation has meant that most commercial radio seems focused on finding innovative ways to insult listeners’ intelligence, innovative ways to offend musicians, and innovative excuses for failing to pay musicians for the use of their work. That’s one more reason that further ownership consolidation must be halted and more meaningful antitrust protections considered; as a precious part of our nation’s cultural heritage, radio is too valuable a public resource to let a few companies define its future.

There should be no question that recording artists, songwriters and composers are eligible to terminate transferred copyrights after 35 years under Section 203. Unfortunately, this statutory right is often muddied by major labels that want us to believe that sound recordings are somehow not part of the provisions laid out by Congress in the 1976 Act. While it is true that the Act exempts certain categories of works, it is absurd to think that Congress intended to exclude recording artists from this fundamental right.

FMC’s Casey Rae, testifying in the latest House Judiciary Subcommittee on copyright.

Full recap here

Licensing Costs Alone Didn’t Doom East Village Radio

In yesterday’s congressional hearing on music licensing, Chris HarrisonVP of Business Affairs atPandora, expressed concern for the viability of internet radio, making reference to popular internet broadcaster East Village Radio having shut down its operations last month, “because they couldn’t afford the [royalty] rates.” As fans of EVR’s wildly eclectic programming, we were saddened to hear that the station was closing down. But Harrison’s account of the reasons behind the closure isn’t the full picture.

Harrison wasn’t alone in making the erroneous oversimplification. When the shutdown announcement came down from East Village Radio, several media outlets were quick to point the finger at high royalty rates, painting a picture of a backwards-thinking music industry that would rather nickel and dime internet broadcasters than enjoy the benefits of a community-minded station eager to introduce music to new audiences. But that narrative was confusing to us, mostly because we remember the negotiations of 2007-2009 which led to lower rates intended to help make these kinds of stations be more sustainable.

Earlier this month, we decided to get in touch directly with EVR station director Peter Ferraro who cleared up the confusion for us. Ferraro cautioned against “getting hung up on the licensing issue,” which was “only one of many factors” that added up to a high cost of doing business. “We were in a break even scenario at the end of 2014 and wouldn’t have been able to grow the business in the way of staffing and infrastructure in order to get us to the next level.” Among those other factors: bandwidth and internet costs unrelated to licensing, payroll, office space and other overhead costs.

Indeed Ferraro and EVR founder Frank Prisinzano said just this in a powerful guest post for Billboard:

”…we kept getting close to putting the infrastructure we needed in place to achieve our goals. Then the reality of that same infrastructure’s cost — payroll, Internet, server and licensing — would saddle us and set us back again and again.

We had opportunities for investors, but we didn’t think we’d be given the autonomy to continue on the path we were on. There was never any discussion of selling out. It was always: “Run it properly or shut it down.”

In our conversation, Ferarro further clarified that to the extent licensing was an issue, it was “less about the rates we were currently paying” and more about ambiguity about how rates might be structured in the future (a ruling by the Copyright Royalty Board is expected by the end of 2015 and will cover the years 2016-2020).

Because they didn’t run advertising, some observers were surprised to learn that EVR wasn’t a nonprofit organization. Ferraro explained that EVR explored the nonprofit option early on, but ultimately chose not to go that route. The station operated in a kind of middle ground occupied by many grassroots arts organizations: not following the typical commercial business model, not principally motivated by profit, but also not operating within the 501(c)(3) federally-recognized non-profit paradigm. They default to the structure of a standard business, and thus they paid the same licensing rates as most commercial webcasters. Still, sponsorship was an important source of revenue for EVR, and they did run advertising on their webpage. Had the station obtained nonprofit status, they could likely have cut their licensing costs by paying the non-comm rates established by the Webcaster Settlement Act. But again, licensing costs, while “definitely a factor” were not the only issue: “working seven days a week, 12-15 hour days was not going to fly going into the second half of this year and into next year.”

Read more

Do Major Labels Really “RESPECT” Older Artists?

Yesterday (June 25, 2014), the House Subcommittee on Courts, Intellectual Property and the Internetheld yet another hearing in its ongoing review of existing copyright law. (We’ll post a full recap shortly; check out our previous coverage here.) Today, we’ll focus on one particular topic that has come up repeatedly in Congress and elsewhere: the lack of federal copyright protections for recordings made before February 15, 1972.

FMC is on record in support of the full federalization of “pre-‘72” recordings, because we think it’s the best way to protect older recording artists who have contributed so much to American musical culture. We stand with the United States Copyright Office in our call to close this loophole, and appreciate the Office’s recommendations on how best to do so. But believe it or not, there are still some who want only limited protections, or none at all.

And who might that be? Why, the major labels.

A few years ago, the Copyright Office sought stakeholder input on how to fix this problem, and FMC was part of those discussions. At the time, we were struck by the major labels’ adamance about preseving the status quo. The labels not only opposed full federalization—they also rejected any stopgap measure to compensate artists for certain uses, such as Internet radio play.

The major labels have since changed their tune on a limited performance right for pre-’72s for Internet and satellite radio, but they remain wishy-washy about full federalization. Why might that be? One reason the labels cite are the “administrative challenges” in bringing these older recordings under federal protections. But we think there’s probably more to it. Major labels can be very cagey about what they do and don’t own, because a proper accounting of their copyrights likely means a proper accounting of what they owe artists. The labels also want to reserve the right to sue services for high damages under the patchwork of state laws covering some—but nowhere near all—legacy works. Meanwhile, the lack of full federal protetctionsfrustrates artist compensation, rights recapture, copyright enforcement and leaves music services open to liability.

At the hearing, RIAA boss Cary Sherman backpedaled a bit, suggesting that federalization is a goal, but one probably best left for another day. “The music business has reinvented itself, but our work is not done,” he remarked. While we admire the major labels’ newfound commitment to protecting legacy artists, we find this new position hard to reconcile with their earlier opposition.

Proposed legislation called the RESPECT Act would address the issue of Internet and satellite performances of pre-’72s. It’s a step in the right direction, but as we’ve previously noted, it doesn’t go far enough. Older artists deserve full protections under law, and Congress is the only body in the land that can make it happen.

Observers of politics are no doubt familiar with the concept of “strange bedfellows.” In this instance, you’ve got services like Pandora, artist advocates, copyright maximalists, academics, libraries, archivists, reissuers and more calling for full protections. Only the major labels seem resistant.

We think that the big labels should join the rest of the music community in urging Congress to adopt full federalization of pre-‘72 copyrights as part of any update to existing laws. If the majors are serious about the fair treatment of recording artists, it’s the least they can do.

And they are serious about that, right?

Canada Scraps Work Permit Requirements for Touring Musicians

This week, the Canadian government opted to dramatically change the labor regulations placed on non-Canadian acts touring in Canada. The decision essentially reverses last summer’s decision that drew the ire of the American Association of Independent Musicians (A2IM) and the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) among others.

Last year’s legislation created Labor Market Opinion fees for foreign artists playing at small clubs, bars and other unrecognized music venues in Canada. The established fee was $275 per band member, which, when compounded with the work permit fee of $150 for an individual musician or $450 for a band, meant that a musical act would pay a minimum of $325 to perform, and bands with six or more members would pay upwards of $2,000. Given the size of the venues that are affected by these fees and the costs of travel, lodging and food costs to the fees, these fees made touring in Canada financially risky at best and ultimately impossible for many independent artists. Unsurprisingly, the fees faced opposition from touring musicians and Canadian citizens alike who launched a change.org petition to amend the regulations to exempt bars and small clubs that garnered over 140,000 signatures.

Yesterday’s decision not only eliminated the LMO fee, it also did away with the work permit fee for touring acts. Lifting these fees provides much greater incentive for foreign acts to tour in Canada. It will be interesting to see if increased touring grows the live music market creates more opportunities for small Canadian acts to perform, ultimately leading to a bolstered Canadian music scene.

For now, foreign performers who had opted out of performing in Canada or who were forced to find dates in non-bar/restaurant venues may be looking to schedule some last minute tour dates up north to escape the summer heat.

New NEA Chair (Finally!) Gets to Work

After a long delay, on Thursday, June 2, Dr. Jane Chu was confirmed by the Senate as the 11thchairperson of the National Endowment for the Arts. Chu, who succeeds acting chair Joan Shigekawa, was nominated for the position by President Obama in February after a vacancy of more than a year following former chair Rocco Landesman’s departure. This week, she’ll make her first public appearance as Chair on Friday morning’s National Council on the Arts meeting.  

Chu comes to the position with a wealth of knowledge in both the arts and philanthropy, and we were delighted to learn that she’s a musician herself—in this interview for the Art Works podcast, she tells of learning to play the piano at age 8.  She holds bachelors and masters degrees in music education, a masters of business administration and a PhD in philanthropic studies. Prior to her nomination, Chu served as CEO of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, MO. During her tenure asCEO, Chu, who has been praised for her abilities as a fundraiser, oversaw the campaign to build the center, which is now home to the Kansas City Ballet, Symphony Orchestra and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. The center also hosts a variety of performances in music, dance and theater by artists from around the world, and as the Washington Post noted, “That the Kauffman Center was built during the recession in a moderate-sized city surprised and impressed many in the arts-management field.”

In these tough economic times, the NEA has been woefully underfunded, at $146 million in FY 2014, down from a peak of $167 million in 2010; by comparison, the Canada Council For the Arts serves our neighbors to the north with a budget of roughly equivalent size, despite having only a tenth of the population. Nonetheless, the agency has played a key role in encouraging innovative thinking toward new and better ways of supporting artists and arts organizations in diverse local communities. Recent years have seen strong moves towards recognizing the full diversity of American musical traditions, and more interagency collaboration to better integrate the arts into more areas of civic life.  We congratulate Dr. Chu on her confirmation and can’t wait to see what she does in her new post.

T-Mobile: “Uncarrier” or Plain Unhelpful

T-Mobile markets itself as a great liberator within the mobile phone industry through its “UnCarrier” initiatives. But is the company really all that different from other powerful carriers and Internet Service Providers? 

On June 18, T-Mobile announced UnCarrier 6.0, which includes new “partnerships” with streaming services such as PandoraSpotify, iTunes RadioiHeartRadioSlackerRhapsody and Milk Music. Under the UnCarrier 6.0 provisions, T-Mobile will not count music streamed on the aforementioned services against their subscribers’ data caps. Using any other online music service—say, Bandcamp orNoisetrade—will result in slowed speeds and potentially, overages.

This move is worrisome for a number of reasons.

As our former Policy Fellow Rachel Allen described in her look at data caps, innovation and creativity, such restrictions aren’t great for users and artists, and they aren’t particularly innovation-friendly. T-Mobile’s new initiative shows that data caps aren’t just a technique to manage congestion and make extra money from subscribers—they can also be used to discourage competition and limit choice for artists and fans.

The ironically titled “Music Freedom” initiative effectively shoehorns T-Mobile customers into using pre-approved services, some of which may not be the artists’ top preference. You may find yourself asking, “but isn’t this a violation of net neutrality?” If only. The most recent attempts at preserving a level online playing field did not apply to mobile. And most of those rules were tossed out by a federal court late last year. We need to fix this. Now is the time for musicians and all Internet users to tell the FCC that we need the strongest net neutrality rules possible, and that they must apply to mobile. Anyone can file! Make it happen!

Back to T-Mobile. What we’re seeing is a carrier potentially impacting innovation while limiting consumer choice. There’s no doubt that streaming on mobile devices is becoming a central way for fans to access music. Still, many artists have mixed feelings about compensation and leverage on mainstream streaming services. There are alternatives, but how are these and future platforms supposed to gain traction if the game is rigged?

We think “Music Freedom” sets a bad precedent. UnCarrier 6.0 (so far) only applies to streaming music services, but there’s nothing stopping T-Mobile or other (un?)carriers from doing this with other apps. Hang on to your handsets—the slope just got a lot more slippery.  

On a more minor note, UnCarrier 6.0 also includes a function for users to vote for other platforms to include in T-Mobile’s data subsidy. A nice thought, we suppose. Interestingly, one of the services in consideration is Grooveshark—a company that many feel is not on the up-and-up with artists and rightsholders. Is that the kind of company that T-Mobile really wants to keep?

All of the above, along with the probelematic statements made by T-Mobile CEO John Legere about the launch make us think that T-Mobile is more unhelpful than “UnCarrier.”