The Sorry (Economic) State of Performance

Of course it is like this. The Save Our Stages Act, S.4258, which allows the Small Business Administration “to make grants to eligible live venue operators, producers, promoters, or talent representatives to address the economic effects of the COVID-19 (i.e., coronavirus disease 2019) pandemic on certain live venues”—and we’re talking real money, an initial grant up to $12-million that can be supplemented by one equal to 50% of the initial grant—has been passed. Months ago.

But according to recent reporting in Variety, there is one non-trivial snag: the venues haven’t gotten any money.

The problem? Oh, probably the website.

A representative of the Small Business Administration is quoted by Variety saying, “the SBA is committed to quickly and efficiently delivering this pandemic relief to help our theatres, music venues, and more get the help they need. While there continues to be some fine-tuning of technical components of the program, we expect SVOG Priority 1 (90% revenue loss) awards to tentatively begin next week, kicking off a 14-day priority period. We will then move on to begin processing Priority 2 awards.”

Possibly by the time you read this some of the $16 billion (yes, with a “b”) will be making its way to a venue near you.

But think about that for a minute: a given operation has experienced a 90% revenue loss? This isn’t a short, one-time event, like having a lemonade stand: one day it is hot and the sales are brisk; the next day there are torrential storms and the stand gets no customers; the following day it is back to sweltering and the thirsty return. That middle day there is a 100% loss. But the pandemic has lasted for more than a day. Obviously.

Certainly things are opening with a feeling of freshness, like throwing open the windows after a long winter of dealing with steam heat.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that for far too many small businesses—such as bars and clubs—the winter has been too long, and what seemed as though it would be at least a way to recover somewhat so far isn’t helping. One wonders whether it will be able to help at all for some of these venues or the life preserver will be thrown in the water after the third time the operation has gone down.

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According to the most recent stats from the Federal Communications Commission, there are 4,546 AM radio stations in the U.S., 6,682 FM “Commercial” stations, and 4,213 FM “Educational” stations, for a total 15,441 stations overall.

According to the most recent stats from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 74,490 people employed in NAICS 515110—Radio Broadcasting.

Non-trivial numbers.

I must admit that I’ve given approximately 0 thought to radio stations, although a friend works for the all-news station in Detroit, which has undergone a number of ownership changes and he mentions on occasion his hopes that things continue.

But then I saw a piece on Axios about former New York congressman Joe Crowley, who became “former” in 2018, when he was defeated in a primary to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Crowley then got a job with a big international law firm.

(Digression that might otherwise be on PolJunk: Presently there is a huge number of people in government—federal, national, state, local—who are scared to stand up for things like reality (which, for those who aren’t solipsists, is pretty much the same thing across the board). Their fear is that they will be primaried by those who have a version of reality that in a more settled time would have those people politely excused for their feeble grip on reality: Think only of Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-GA), who claimed the storming of the Capitol on January 6 looked like a “normal tourist visit.” And then there’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose bizarre world view defies all understanding. What these people are actually doing is hoping like hell that if they say outrageous things they’ll be able to hold on to their jobs. That’s it. They are willing to sacrifice everything so as to keep a specific type of employment. It is insulting to whores to describe these people as “whores.” While I know nothing about Crowley, it does seem that there is employment after Congress.)

Crowley has been retained by musicFIRST Coalition, which describes itself: “We rally the people and organizations who make and love music to end the broken status quo that allows AM/FM to use any song ever recorded without paying its performers a dime. And to stand up for fair pay on digital radio — and whatever comes next.”

Crowley is a lobbyist. Perhaps not thought of as a noble undertaking. But better than wearing a tinfoil hat.

Crowley told Axios, “FM and AM radio is playing their music but not paying for it. There are thousands of artists who are struggling to make ends meet — and COVID has only made the situation worse.”

The laws have it that the songwriters and publishers get paid when a recording is played on the radio, but not the performers. (All of those catalogs being snapped up from Dylan, Nicks, etc., are getting ROIs when the relevant songs are broadcast.)

While streaming is certainly reducing the number of radio stations that are playing music, that ~10,000 of FM stations, a percentage of which undoubtedly play recordings, isn’t a trivial number.

In the musicFIRST press release about Crowley’s appointment as “chairman” of the outfit, he is quoted as saying, “We need to change the rules that are rigged in favor of a few big, billion-dollar media companies and ensure that hardworking creators get paid when their work is played on the radio.”

That, for recording artists, is populism at its best.

While performers do get paid a pittance by the streaming services, it does seem odd that they’ve not been able to acquire any revenue from radio.

(Apparently the argument has been that by having their music played on the radio, people will hear it and they go out and buy their music. While that model might have been relevant when there were physical objects that are round and thin being bought in notable numbers, now that is essentially gone. And although some might think that the whole notion of listening to the “radio” is old-timey, odds are those performers who haven’t been on a stage for well over a year (see first section of this piece) don’t give a damn what medium their music is being heard on and if they can get something for it, then that’s too the good. According to the U.S. Labor Dept., in April the Consumer Price Index–what we pay for things from food to gasoline–rose 4.2%, a rise not seen since September 2008. Performers eat and drive, too.)

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