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Tuning Out Black Radio's Complaints

In order to feel for black radio stations as they fight against paying new royalties for the songs they play, I'd first have to like them. Although I grew up with urban music — R&B, hip-hop and neo-soul — I am proudly anti-Top 40/urban radio.

For the past decade or so, I've seen a marked decrease in the quality and diversity of music played on black-themed urban radio stations. You know it's bad when you hear the same song on three different stations at once. It's even worse when you can't tell two different songs from each other.

Don't get me wrong: I am a big fan of popular music. I get the ubiquitous genius of Beyonce's larger-than-life "Single Ladies." I think Kanye West saved hip-hop from the dead earlier this decade. And I understand that Jay-Z, hip-hop's ambassador, with his 11 No. 1 records, is arguably bigger than Elvis.

But I am not convinced that popular black radio provides the best showcase of what modern urban music has to offer. And for that reason, I feel no remorse when I hear that urban stations might have to pay new royalties for the songs they play.

For one, the artists who would benefit the most from these new royalties are already successful. As more stations take fewer chances on what music they choose to play, we are guaranteed that the artists you hear on these stations are already tried-and-true, with a track record of success and the income that comes along with it. The most popular artists on urban radio today — Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Lil' Wayne and the three I mentioned a few paragraphs up — have been bona fide hits for years. And the new artists garnering equal amounts of radio love often mimic these artists or have their stamp of approval (see Drake). And, let's face it, these artists are making their money on touring and merchandising; everything else benefits the record company more than the performer.

The sad truth is that the struggling new artists changing the landscape of urban music probably won't be heard on urban radio. And these are the artists those in favor of new radio performance royalties claim to champion. But artists like Sa-Ra, Laura Izibor or Brother Ali, and even established critical darlings like Q-Tip, won't be heard on your favorite "black" radio station. Those who benefit from the new royalties, the Kanyes and Beyonces, most likely won't be the ones that need it.

So, ultimately, I'm not concerned with the plight of urban radio in the face of these proposed new fees, nor am I convinced of their usefulness to the new and struggling artists who actually need them. I couldn't really care less either way. For the past few years, I've been finding my music through blogs, critical reviews, word of mouth and live shows. But radio stations and record companies haven't seemed to realize that a lot of folks my age are doing that. And as they stick to an outdated formula, we get our music fix elsewhere. For a lot of us, radio play stopped mattering years ago. So this fierce debate over performance royalties is one many of us won't be listening to anyway.

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Sam Sanders
Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.