I have a new addiction: Soma.
No, not the fictional drug of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” but SomaFM, an Internet-based “radio” station broadcasting commercial-free music from a garage in San Francisco.
SomaFM emerged in 1999 from one of those most noble of institutions: a pirate radio station. Not a “Pump Up the Volume”-style pirate radio station, but a station serving that year’s Burning Man festival.
Burning Man is an annual celebration of arts and anarchy held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. For more about it, see Brian Doherty’s definitive and entertaining book, “This Is Burning Man.”
Burning Man, however, was only the beginning. In February 2000, Rusty Hodge, SomaFM’s founder, launched a Web site to stream his station via the Internet to the entire world. SomaFM is now one of the largest Internet-only radio stations, broadcasting more than 3 million “listener hours” a month and reaching about 8,000 listeners on average at any given time.
SomaFM’s playlists are far removed from typical top 40 radio. The 11 separate channels at SomaFM.com offer mostly a mix of electronic, ambient, trance and trip-hop music — the sort of stuff often referred to as “New Age,” not that much of it has anything to do with the eclectic group of religions often lumped under that name.
It’s music most people usually can’t hear over the air, apart from public radio shows like “Echoes” and “Hearts of Space.”
Hodge and SomaFM quickly became an Internet success story, not in terms of profits because there weren’t any, but in terms of Web hits, word of mouth (or e-mail) and satisfied listeners who had gone unserved by the likes of Clear Channel.
If SomaFM were the subject of a VH1 “Behind the Music” episode, this would be the point in our story where everything goes wrong. As it happens, everything does go wrong.
In 1998, Congress passed one of the most poorly conceived pieces of legislation of the past decade: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. And in 2002, using the DMCA as a sledgehammer, the Recording Industry Association of America went after Internet radio stations for millions of dollars in royalties.
“I was looking at owing the RIAA an obscene amount of money, like $100,000,” Hodge told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2004 interview, “so I chickened out at the time and took the station off the air.”
Internet broadcasters fought back, and Hodge testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Eventually, the RIAA relented and settled on a lower royalty fee, which for SomaFM is $2,000 a year, funded by listener donations.
As a result, SomaFM is back. But the legal problems, unfortunately, continue.
On May 1, the federal Copyright Royalty Board raised the fees for Internet broadcasting, making Web broadcasters responsible for royalties that over-the-air broadcasters don’t have to pay. A bill in the U.S. House to overturn the CRB’s decision, H.R. 2060, has more than 140 co-sponsors, but so far it has gone nowhere.
The duplicity here simply reeks. Congress is filled with demagogues who routinely rail against the broadcasting conglomerates like Clear Channel and Cumulus Media, the two largest owners of traditional radio stations. But when it comes to fostering competition where it really matters — the Internet — Congress stands with the big broadcasters and major music labels.
Of course, traditional broadcasters are dependent on government licenses in order to transmit over the “public” airwaves, so they, unlike Internet broadcasters, are reliable donors at election time.
But for now, Internet radio stations like SomaFM are still going. So, try them out before it’s too late. And maybe leave a few bucks in the tip jar while you’re at it.