Why can’t we hear full songs in podcasts? Well, it’s complicated

FILE photo - Alan Cross examines the complicated issue of why podcasts can't feature full-length songs. AP Photo/Richard Drew

Podcasting continues to be a hot form of broadcasting, growing from an audience of about 12 per cent of people 12 and up in 2013 to more than 31 per cent today. In Sweden, the number is at least 47 per cent. Canada is around 34 per cent; that number increases to 46 per cent for Canadians 18 to 49.

Over 500 million people (23.5 per cent of all internet users) listen to podcasts of the approximately 4.3 million shows available regularly with many listening to half a dozen or more weekly. Comedy is the biggest category followed by news, true crime, and health and fitness.

A little further down the list, you’ll find music, an insanely popular genre. Around half a million podcasts are devoted to music in some form, meaning there are millions of episodes on the subject. Yet virtually none of them feature full songs.

Why? As the headline says, it’s complicated.

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When an artist signs a deal with a publisher, the publisher owns a piece of the artist’s material and has a say in how it is used. In exchange for tracking this use and paying out royalties, the publisher is entitled to about 50 per cent of the revenue generated.

A deal with a record label gives that company the exclusive right to distribute that artist’s music and a slice of the profits, too.

Over the years, the usual ways you hear music, such as listening to the radio, streaming music online, or buying a CD, have led to systems that pay artists, publishers and record labels. Those systems developed long ago, decades before podcasts became part of our daily information diet.

When the military turned radio broadcasting over to the public in the years following the First World War, the industry exploded. Many stations started broadcasting music, making it the first time in history that audiences could enjoy great and important performances in their homes for free. This did not go over well with record companies, music publishers, composers, and musicians. Why would anyone buy their records if the public could enjoy this music for free? The record industry fought hard against radio using their goods.

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After a protracted fight, performing rights organizations (PROs) proved to be the solution. Instead of each radio station seeking permission to play each record in their library, stations simply reported what songs they played to the PROs (SOCAN in Canada, ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC in the U.S., PRS in the U.K., and similar companies in countries around the world) and they would determine how much in airplay royalties a station owed. The PROs collected the money and then distributed to their members accordingly.

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This is called a “blanket license” and allows radio stations to play whatever they want so long as they report it and then pay the associated royalties.

And so it went for decades. Before we got into computer tracking of music, I remember having to deal with SOCAN weeks several times a year. That meant filling out special playlists detailing the song title, artist, and composer of every song we played during our shifts, 24/7, for anywhere from four to seven days (Did we once have to do it for 14 days? I can’t remember). All those sheets of paper with our bad handwriting were then sent to SOCAN so they could sort it all out. It was exhausting and boring manual work. Today, PRO reports are filed electronically with the push of a button.

(By the way, Canadian radio stations pay fees equal to a certain percentage of their pre-tax revenue to SOCAN and a couple of other PROs for the privilege of playing music as part of our business model. In America, only the composers are paid. If an artist releases a cover, only the writer or writers of the song get airplay royalties and not the performers of that cover. This has long been a sore spot for the American recorded music industry, but I digress.)

Streaming music services work under similar conditions. Because of the way their music is delivered, each of them knows exactly what songs get played and how many times they are streamed. At the end of the month, they send that data to the PROs (along with the requisite cash) for distribution to the rightsholders.

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Coming back to podcasts, there is no universal PRO-type system to track and cover the use of music. What’s more, I’m not aware of any single organization anywhere in the world, domestic or international, where a conscientious podcaster can go to seek permission to use a song and to pay for that use, unless you separately hire a private music clearance house. The only real exception is Spotify which has a system called Anchor that allows podcasters to incorporate songs from Spotify’s library into podcasts. But by doing that, the podcast is tied to Spotify forever and Anchor hasn’t been as successful as expected.

Even if there was, licensing music for podcasts would be much more difficult than for radio. Not only would the composer, publisher, and label have to be compensated somehow, but we get into the complex world of mechanicals and master recording rights. Identifying songs in podcasts for tracking purposes is extremely difficult, too, but let’s not go down that rabbit hole because your eyes will just glaze over.

But if a solution could be figured out, a lot of money could possibly be made. Imagine being able to download a full top 40 countdown to listen to at your leisure. Or a full concert.

The music industry is looking to license music for formats other than radio, TV, movies, video games, and commercials. Allowing podcasters to use — and pay! — for music could open the floodgates and mean more cash for creators and rightsholder. But how can this be accomplished?

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There are organizations trying to make it work, but there’s still a long way to go. There are so many stakeholders involved that — well, good luck with that. But something has to give eventually. One day.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

Subscribe to Alan’s Ongoing History of New Music Podcast now on Apple Podcast or Google Play

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