Peter Kafka

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Digital Music Deal Nearly Done, but Web Radio Darling Pandora Not Out of the Woods

Web music site operators and the music industry have worked out the major points in a deal that will reduce the fees Web site operators are supposed to pay for music streaming rights.

A final deal between the Digital Media Association, which is representing the Web sites, and SoundExchange, which collects royalties on behalf of the music labels and other copyright owners, isn’t expected until later this year. But “the hard stuff has been done,” says Pandora founder Tim Westergren, who has become the public face of Webcasters during negotiations.

In September, Congress agreed to let the two groups hash out new terms that would replace the ones that the government-appointed Copyright Royalty Board signed off on last year. Since then, Web radio sites, led by Pandora, have bitterly complained that rates would force them out of business.

The existing deal calls for Webcasters to pay an escalating fee to copyright owners every time they play a song for a listener. This year, for instance, Web radio stations are supposed to pay 14 hundredths of a penny ($.0014) per song streamed, per listener; site operators figure that will cost them about 2.1 cents per user, per hour.

That doesn’t seem like much, but in order to cover those fees alone (before bandwidth and other costs), operators would need pull down many more advertising dollars then they’re getting now.

Site advocates figure they’d need to be able to generate a so-called CPM rate of about $21 for every thousand visitors (over the course of an hour) under the current fee structure. That’s a hard rate for big professional Web sites to achieve. And since users generally turn on a Web radio station, then look at other sites while it runs in the background, the format is a tough sell for ad buyers.

So what’s the new rate going to be? Westergren wouldn’t comment, except to argue that the compromise still calls for “tremendously unfair” payments when compared to the fees paid by satellite radio operator Sirius XM (SIRI). That company is supposed to pay between six percent and eight percent of revenue between now and 2012.

What about conventional radio? Those stations don’t pay a penny for so-called “performance” royalties, though the cash-starved music labels have asked Congress to change that. Good luck!

The big question: Will the new rates allow Pandora, and the many smaller Webcasters, to surive? Westergren says Pandora is on track to generate $20 million in revenue this year, but he wouldn’t say whether that would allow him to break even with the new proposed rates.

But Web advertising in general is under pressure, and ad buyers say that their clients are increasingly skeptical about trying out “experimental” mediums like Web video. So unless the rates get very, very low, or Westergren’s company has hired some very, very persuasive sales people, it’s going to remain a struggle.