Music Is Being Left on the Sidelines of the Podcast Revolution

On July 12, Calvin Powers of the American Music Show podcast announced that after 452 episodes, and many songs, albums, and artists supported through his popular podcast, he was having to close up shop.

“A few days ago, I received an email from the Recording Industry Association of America notifying me that I have been hosting ‘unauthorized recordings.’ The email mentioned that they were acting on behalf of a specific label … I was instructed to take down the unauthorized recordings immediately. At about the same time, they sent a DMCA take down notice to Libsyn, which hosts the show’s MP3 files. And Libsyn is in the process of doing it.”

As Calvin went on to explain, his efforts were in no way malicious, he never made any money off of his podcast, and he always received permissions from the right people before playing any song. “I have _always_ played only the songs that have been submitted to the show by singers, bands, and labels, looking to expand the market for their albums. It has always been my explicit goal to introduce new listeners to new music. I only play music that has been submitted to the show per the music submission policy.”

Calvin’s story is common, but doesn’t only affect the grassroots podcasters and internet DJs doing what they can to give back to the music by helping to spread the word. It affects the biggest podcasts and audio creators in the world. Joe Rogan’s The Joe Rogan Experience is so massive with its millions of daily listeners and viewers, the audience dwarfs most cable channels in audience. However Joe Rogan cannot play music on the podcast, or the episodes can be demonetized, or even pulled off of certain formats.

This happens for all sorts of audio and video creators on YouTube and beyond. It’s an issue country music critic and commentator Grady Smith has to commonly contend with as he tries to promote and comment on music. YouTube creator Brodie Moss of the popular Australian-based fishing and wildlife channel YBS Youngbloods opened one of his recent episodes explaining how it would likely get demonetized on YouTube since he included so much music, but wanted to include it anyway because it works so well in the presentation.

Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic moving most entertainment indoors and online, the ability for podcasters to introduce music and influence appeal to engaged audiences has never been greater. However it has never been more hard to compile the right permissions and authorizations to use music in this widely-engaged media. Not only does this hurdle eliminate an important promotional tool for artists, it’s also overlooking a potential direct revenue source.

As podcast.co explains, there really is no true way to feature music in a podcast or video without a proper license. There is no “10 second rule” that some podcasters work under, believing as long as they keep it to small snippets, they’re in the clear. It also doesn’t matter if you have permission from the specific artist, or credit them somewhere for the song. If a bot instructed from a label or publisher finds any part of a song in an audio presentation, it has the possibility of raising a flag. And since the human element has been taken out of the review process even for larger content creators, there are few options to override vetos. You can’t even get away with featuring music even if you’re not making any money on your podcast or video. Not-for-profit or otherwise, it’s illegal to play copyrighted material without express permissions through a licensing contract to play music.

And of course, those licensing contracts regularly price out would-be podcasters, while even some of the most all-encompassing agreements still have holes in what you can and can’t play, with many major artists and labels opting out of having their music featured. That is why even as we have seen the podcast market grow dramatically, it has done so solely along the interview and commentary approach—not shows that feature a mix of music and commentary, or music primarily. Chris Shiflett of The Foo Fighters has one of the hottest independent country and roots music podcasts around in Walking The Floor. But it’s based around interviews.

Of course, this has been a known issue for years. But how it continues to persist in an era where you can stream any song on Spotify and it only generates fractions of a penny for the artist, and when synced-up tracks on Tik-Tok featured in 30 second snippets are the most influential data point on Billboard’s music charts, and growth in podcasting continues to be exponential and outpace traditional media, is quite mind boggling.

Everybody wants artists and songwriters to be credited and compensated, especially podcasters and content creators who are directly motivated by supporting good music. But by attempting to protect their creators and copyrights, labels and rights owners are leaving themselves and their artists on the sidelines of one of the most revolutionary moments in audio entertainment since the phonograph and the radio. Of course, we can’t return to the early Wild West days of the internet when songs were being used without permissions and no credit was given to creators. But with the continued loss of market share by radio, and even other traditional entertainment media like television and movies to consumers binge watching/listening and subscribing to podcasts, music needs to move forward to be a partner in the space.

There have been some attempts to create stopgaps in the podcast medium for song permissions. In 2019, SoundExchange and SourceAudio announced a partnership in order to help the “rapidly growing podcast industry to secure music with fully integrated, global licenses.” On the beta version of a service, PodcastMusic.com offers 700,000 production and music bed tracks to the podcast community. However, podcasters have to select songs from the specific library of audio, much of which is not specific songs from artists that podcasters may want to feature or promote.

There are more all-inclusive licenses available, but the economics to buy into them are impossible for grassroots podcasters, and even unattainable for many for-profit audio creators. There are also services like Gimmie Country that do allow podcasters to choose their own songs and play them with permissions secured, and sync that together with audio segments. But those shows can’t be archived or played on-demand. It’s a one shot live stream like a radio show, while much of the success of podcasting is due to on demand capability.

What’s so frustrating for many podcasters or would-be podcasters is making music available in a way that is still fair to rights holders but economical to the public is so intuitive. Many have asked why Saving Country Music has never launched a podcast. It’s because it’s been put off for the day when a reasonable way to feature actual music on the format arrives. Over a decade later, we’re still waiting.

Everybody wants musicians and songwriters to be compensated for their work, and everyone from grassroots podcasters to YouTube creators are more than willing to do what they can to remain on the right side of copyright laws. But without a reasonable rights solution, and with the way navigating rights and licenses is such a land mine of legalese and copyright bots, music will remain locked out of the fastest-rising and most engaging audio mediums of our generation.

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