The New Music Seminar kicked off this morning in New York City with a provocative keynote by SoundExchange CEO and president Michael Huppe, who began his speech asking a simple question: “If FM radio went away tomorrow, would music sales go down or up?” His rather counterintuitive answer was that sales would increase, an assertion that formed the backbone of his address.
Huppe’s argument claimed FM radio hurts music sales, fails to set trends, profits enormously to the tune of $17 billion a year while failing to fairly compensate musicians and labels.
Huppe made his case by presenting three key points in history where he claimed FM radio either had no impact or hurt music sales: The 1920s-1940s when the dawn of radio allegedly stalled the sales of records following the the launch of the phonograph; the 1970s UK when commercial radio first hit and had a “negligible impact on music,” according to a University of Texas study by Stan Liebowitz; and a more recent example of Cumulus radio’s introduction in New York City last year of NASH-FM country radio, which he claimed had no increase on country music sales.
Citing songs by Lorde, Daft Punk and Brantley Gilbert, Huppe showed graphs demonstrating how these artists had already broken on social media and digital platforms well before FM radio began playing their hits. “That is what’s upside down,” he said, “when Lorde and Daft Punk demonstrated that people want to hear their songs, FM radio decided to broadcast their music to millions of people for free without paying artists and labels anything at all.”
Huppe then played several cloying radio bumpers through the Wyndham New Yorker Hotel’s audio system seemingly for the purpose of irony: “Playing records mom and dad told you to turn down!” one screamed. And another played four times in a row with different radio announcers: “Today’s hits and yesterday’s favorites!”
The final point of Huppe’s presentation argued that FM radio needs you more than you need them. Citing comments from the National Association of Broadcasters to the copyright office’s music licensing study from May 2014, he highlighted the following: “To be precise, broadcasters do not distribute music at all. Instead, broadcasters provide original programming for free to the public. One component of that programming is the performance of music.” This was used to illustrate the point that it is off the back of music that the medium is able to attract an audience which allows radio to sell advertising.
Before concluding, Huppe mentioned he will be testifying before the U.S. Congress on June 25 as part of a hearing on music licensing where he said he will be “fighting for fair pay on radio.”
While Huppe made a compelling argument, it should be noted that for a 20-something-minute keynote speech there wasn’t much room for subtlety or context. Deep economic issues like the Great Depression, radical changes in music mediums, and explosive technologies were only briefly mentioned but are potentially major contributing factors to flat music sales.
Huppe’s keynote followed entertaining opening remarks by Tom Silverman, who hit the podium dressed in New York Rangers jersey. (The hockey team is in this year’s Stanley Cup finals but are down to the L.A. Kings 0-2.) “Don’t count the Rangers out yet,” Silmverman said, “just like the music business, we’re coming back.” After a slide presentation showing the music industry’s decline over the last fifteen years, Silverman invoked “Dune,” the 1965 science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. His extended metaphor called on the music industry’s “planetary ecologists” to “terraform” or transform the barren lifeless planet that is the music industry with new ideas and technologies that will grow the music business and bring greater prosperity to artists and the industry.