radio music licensing committee

Radio broadcasters have been receiving invoices from the Radio Music License Committee (“RMLC”), and many are asking whether the invoice is “real.”  Some stations seem concerned that they are being asked to pay some fee that they really don’t owe. The truth is that this is one bill that most commercial stations in fact do owe, and it is a bill that they should actually be happy to pay. RMLC is the committee that represented radio broadcasters in the recent negotiations with ASCAP and BMI, leading to new agreements covering the royalties to be paid to these organizations through 2016. We wrote about the ASCAP agreement, here. The BMI agreement was announced recently, and we’ll try to get a summary of that agreement up on the blog sometime soon. These settlement agreements significantly reduced the amount of royalties that the radio industry as a whole pays to ASCAP and BMI for the public performance of musical compositions on over-the-air radio (and in connection with their digital uses of music as well).   As part of these settlement agreements, the Court overseeing the antitrust consent decrees with ASCAP and BMI, which had to approve the settlements, approved the fees to RMLC as well. 

Under the terms of the Court approval, all stations that either elected to be represented by RMLC in the negotiations (see our article on that election here), or those who elect to be covered by the settlement by signing an agreement with ASCAP and BMI under the terms that RMLC negotiated, are required to pay the fee to RMLC.  The fee funds RMLC operations in the future, and pays for the cost of the litigation and negotiations that led to the settlements.


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The Radio Music Licensing Committee has announced a settlement with BMI over music royalties for the public performance of musical compositions for the period from 2010-2016.  Terms have not been announced, so we can’t provide the details, yet.  But as we wrote recently when the RMLC announced the terms of its agreement with ASCAP, we would assume that the terms would be somewhat similar to the ASCAP deal.  If no settlement had been reached with BMI, the case would have gone to a "rate court" in Federal District Court to see what the fair market value of the performance right was.  As analogous rates often form the basis for rate court determinations of fair market value, the settlement with ASCAP would no doubt have been an issue for BMI, as it would appear to set a benchmark rate for the public performance of musical compositions.  But, we will have to wait to see what the filings say before we can determine if, for sure, the rates will decrease relative to prior rates to the same extent that they did for ASCAP.

It is worth reflecting on how RMLC came to reach deals with ASCAP and BMI, and to explain why there is no reference to a SESAC deal.  I’ve already heard or seen several people suggesting that an agreement with SESAC may be next – when in fact that is not something that is imminent, as can be explained by the differences between ASCAP and BMI on one hand, and SESAC on the other.  ASCAP and BMI are both governed by anti-trust consent decrees that have been in place for over 50 years.  Under both decrees, these organizations have to enter into agreements to set royalties for all similarly-situated users of music in various categories of businesses – categories including radio, TV, websites, background music, restaurants, bars, hotels, performance venues and practically every other place where music is performed for the public.  If no agreement can be reached on a voluntary license, a “rate court” decides on the royalties. Essentially, that means that a US District Court in New York has a trial to set the rates.


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ASCAP and the Radio Music Licensing Committee have reached a settlement on the amount that radio stations will pay to ASCAP for the use of music for the period through the end of 2016. The agreement was approved last week by the US District Court in the Southern District of New York acting as a “rate court” to consider those fees. We reported that a settlement had been reached in early December, and now we’ve seen the actual documents and can provide some details of this agreement between the commercial radio broadcast industry and ASCAP. It should result in significant savings for broadcasters from rates that they had been paying prior to January 1, 2010.

As we wrote in 2010 when RMLC and ASCAP were first trying to reach a deal on new rates, the biggest problem with the old rates was the payment structure. Rather than making ASCAP a partner of the broadcaster by cutting them in for a percentage of the broadcaster’s revenue, under the deal that ended in 2009, ASCAP was to receive a set fee each year from the broadcast industry.  That set fee was divided among all commercial radio stations not based on station revenues, but instead based on the market size and technical coverage of each station. So all similarly powered stations in a market paid the same ASCAP fee, whether they were big revenue producers or not.  And the agreement was entered into during a period where radio broadcasters thought that revenues would be ever-increasing, so that set fee to be paid to ASCAP increased each year. As the economy and broadcast revenues fell during the later years of the deal, while the set fee kept increasing,broadcasters were paying an ever-increasing percentage of their revenues to ASCAP – far more than would have been paid had the industry stuck to a percentage of revenue formula.

Well, the experiment is over, as the new deal returns to a traditional percentage of revenue deal. Music radio pays ASCAP 1.7% of “revenues subject to fee from radio broadcasting." Essentially, that is all the revenue that a station receives from advertising and promotions, less a 12% deduction (presumably to cover commissions and costs of collection). Barter revenues, and payments made to networks (as opposed to the stations themselves), are excluded from the gross revenue calculation. All revenues from HD programming (including any amounts received for brokered programming) is also included (at least for the time being – subject to reevaluation should HD revenues account for 25% of radio revenues by 2015). New Media revenues, if the arise exclusively from streaming your station on the Internet, are also included in this gross revenue calculation.


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New ASCAP royalties are on their way to radio broadcasters. ASCAP and the Radio Music Licensing Committee (RMLC) have just announced that they have reached an agreement in principal to return to the percentage of revenue royalties that for so long were paid by radio stations to ASCAP and BMI – a system that

The Radio Music Licensing Committee ("RMLC") has announced that it has entered into agreements with both ASCAP and BMI for interim royalties to be paid by commercial radio stations until final royalties are set.  These royalties will be set either through negotiation or through litigation in Federal Courts which act as a "rate court" to determine what reasonable rates will be under the antitrust decrees that govern these organizations.  As we wrote here and here, the RMLC has been involved in negotiations seeking a significant reduction in the royalties paid by radio stations for the right to make a public performance of musical compositions (or "musical works").  Both organizations have agreed to a 7% reduction in the amount currently paid by radio broadcasters, to be reflected on the invoices sent by these organizations for 2010 royalties.  According to the press release on the ASCAP agreement, the discounts are interim agreements only, and will be subject to retroactive adjustment to January 1, 2010 once final royalties are set.

This money goes to composers of music, as contrasted to the controversial SoundExchange royalties that pay the performers of music (currently only in the digital world, but proposed in legislation pending before Congress to be extended to over-the-air broadcasting).   ASCAP and BMI are essentially collection agencies (called Performing Rights Organizations or PROs) for large groups of songwriters.  By signing up and paying royalties to these organizations and to SESAC, a smaller but still significant PRO, broadcasters obtain a "blanket license" to play all the songs covered by songwriters who are members of these organizations – which are essentially all of the songwriters whose songs are likely to be played by radio.  The existence of these organizations save radio stations from having to negotiate independently with the thousands of songwriters and publishing companies that own the copyrights to these compositions – an arduous task that might be almost impossible without the existence of the PROs. 


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Radio broadcasters all over the country have been receiving letters about music royalties – from ASCAP, BMI and the Radio Music Licensing Committee (RMLC).  The ASCAP and BMI letters are asking for the broadcaster to sign a letter committing themselves to some royalty obligation for 2010.  They pose three options to the broadcaster – sign up to pay royalties for 2010, join the RMLC negotiating group, or notify ASCAP and BMI that they will be negotiating their own royalties.  The RMLC letter suggests that the broadcaster join in their negotiating group to help to establish a new royalty structure with these entities.  What does it all mean, and what should a broadcaster do? 

These letters are all triggered because the rates for royalties that commercial radio broadcasters pay to ASCAP and BMI for the musical compositions that they play on the air expire at the end of 2009. (Noncommercial broadcasters have a special rate set under the review of the Copyright Royalty Board, and thus are not subject to these deals)  RMLC represents most radio broadcasters in their dealings with the performing rights organizations (or "PROs" as ASCAP and BMI, and SESAC, are called). We wrote about the many issues that have held up an extension of the current agreements between radio broadcasters and ASCAP and BMI here. If there is no new deal covering these royalties in place by the end of the year, broadcasters who continue to play these compositions (which will be virtually all commercial radio operators) will need to determine how to pay royalties when the current royalty agreements expire.  The current agreements do not have any automatic extensions in them, as the antitrust consent decrees that bind these companies call for royalty deals of no more than 5 years in duration. Thus, as the old agreements are about to expire, and no new agreements are in place, the flurry of letters has followed to put broadcasters on notice of the current situation.  Of course, none of these letters is entirely clear in spelling out all the issues involved.  So we’ll try to explain some of those issues below. 


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While we have written much about the battle over the broadcast performance royalty (or the "performance tax" as broadcasters call it) – whether broadcasters will have to pay artists and record labels for the right to play their music on the air – we have not written much about another looming issue with the royalties that broadcasters must pay to play music on their stations.  While broadcasters are very familiar with the ASCAP and BMI royalties, they may not be fully aware that there is a looming dispute over the amount that broadcasters will pay to these organizations in the near future.  At a panel that I moderated at the NAB Radio Show, Bill Velez, the head of the Radio Music Licensing Committee, talked about the current negotiations for the renewal of the royalty agreements between radio stations and these two Performing Rights Organizations ("PROs").  Both of the current agreements expire at the end of this year, and the RMLC is in the process of trying to negotiate new agreements.  However, because many broadcasters feel that the current deals charge more for these music rights than is justified in the current economic environment, while the PROs are reluctant to decrease the royalties that the composers they represent currently receive, the differing perceptions of the value of these rights could lead to litigation over the amount that should be paid by broadcasters for the use of this music.

First, it is important to understand what rights ASCAP and BMI are providing. These organizations, along with SESAC (about which we have written here), provide the copyright license for the "public performance" of the "musical work" or the composition, the words and musical notes to a song.  This is in contrast to the rights to the sound recording (the song as performed and recorded by a specific artist), which is licensed by SoundExchange.  Webcasters have to pay ASCAP and BMI for the use of the composition, as well as paying SoundExchange for the use of the sound recording when streaming music on the Internet.  Broadcasters only have the obligation to pay ASCAP,BMI and SESAC for the composition in connection with their over the air broadcasts but do not, under the current law (unless the broadcast performance royalty is passed), have to pay SoundExchange.  Because the current ASCAP and BMI royalties have been in place for several years, most broadcasters probably don’t think much about them, but they may have to in the near future.


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On September 25, 2009, David Oxenford moderated a panel at the NAB Radio Show in Philadelphia called "The Day the Music Died – Streaming, The Performance Tax and Other Copyright Issues."  In addition to the music royalties involved in webcasting and the possible broadcast performance royalty, the panel discussed other copyright issues, including