If high-powered manager Irving Azoff gets his way, songwriters for artists like Drake and Justin Bieber will make considerably more money every time you hear them on the radio. But a top radio group has excoriated Azoff's recent tactics and refuses to budge in an ugly battle that won't let up soon.
Azoff's Global Music Rights and the Radio Music Licensing Committee have filed dueling lawsuits over radio rates for songwriters, an usually prosaic negotiation that has turned contentious. "They started it — they have no idea what they started," Azoff, the longtime Eagles manager, tells Rolling Stone. "I'm expecting congressional hearings. I'm expecting this to open up a whole look in how artists get screwed."
Azoff's three-year-old music-licensing company contends radio rates for songwriters are too low, and the system for negotiating them is antiquated and must be changed. The company, on behalf of its 71 clients, including songwriters behind hits by John Lennon, Drake, Bieber and others, was negotiating rates when the RMLC filed suit before Thanksgiving, says Daniel Petrocelli, GMR's attorney. "We thought we were negotiating in good faith and making a lot of progress, but unbeknownst to us, while they were holding us at bay, behind the scenes, they were preparing a lawsuit and sprung it on us," Petrocelli says.
For decades, ASCAP and BMI, the industry's major licensing companies, have agreed to royalty rates of 4 percent of stations' revenues, according to Petrocelli. (The two companies represent roughly 95 percent of music copyrights, with ASCAP and BMI determining rates in a U.S. judicial process called rate court.)
But in its own lawsuit, filed December 7th in U.S. District Court, Azoff's company accuses the RMLC of operating an "illegal cartel" to "artificially depress the license fees member stations pay to perform musical compositions on the radio." "It's been going on for decades," Azoff says, referring to the process almost all radio stations use to determine artist fees. "I've been frustrated throughout my entire career about it."
In response to the GMR reps' fiery accusations, Bill Velez, the RMLC's executive director, says he's "besieged with calls" and declined an interview request. But in a statement, he calls the Azoff lawsuit "baseless" and accuses the songwriters' company of trying to singlehandedly raise rates and "impose monopoly pricing on the radio industry."
"GMR baselessly criticizes the rates ... as unreasonably low, but conveniently ignores that the courts have regularly found them to be reasonable and non-discriminatory," he says.
The lawsuit involves only traditional radio stations, excluding companies like SiriusXM or Pandora that are part of a different rate-setting process (and one that Azoff praises as more reasonable for songwriters). "Terrestrial radio, for decades now, has been operating outside the free marketplace, without having to compete and sensibly structure their business, and songwriters have been the victims," Azoff says, adding that he's satisfied with rates GMR negotiated with other radio companies such as iHeartradio and Townsquare. "And now that a few songwriters are fighting back, radio blames the victims."