Rhodri Marsden: Cyberman

Podcasts must face the music
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The Independent Online

My otherwise peaceful afternoon was shattered by Virgin Radio's Pete Mitchell. "That," he enthused, "was The Style Council." But I never heard the dulcet tones of Paul Weller. I merely got an advert for some car navigation equipment, because I chose to have the show delivered to my computer a few hours late as a podcast. It may be a revolutionary medium embraced by thousands of budding radio presenters, but, as usual, technology is moving far more briskly than the knackered tricycle of copyright law. And so, in order to avoid courtroom confrontation, the Pete and Geoff Breakfast Show podcast is brutally hacked down by nearly three hours - by simply removing all of the music.

The word "podcast" is a red herring. You don't need an iPod to listen to one, and, more importantly, it isn't broadcast. Podcatching software such as Apple's iTunes allows us to subscribe to shows, which are then automatically downloaded as they appear online so that we can listen at our leisure, dipping in, rewinding and repeating at will. This gives the music industry a headache, because the licences normally granted to broadcasters simply don't cover this new format. As a result, the majority of podcasts are dominated by uncensored, rambling speech - the audio equivalent of the average blog - and any music that is featured must be "podsafe" - ie doesn't fall under a standard record-label agreement.

A cursory search for podsafe music turned up a band called .22, who state, proudly, "We are Asian party boy threesome. We rock our jocks off. We are whores for Satan". It seems unlikely that Pete and Geoff will be inviting them on to the Breakfast Show at any point in the near future.

But, in a significant development, the Association of Independent Music (AIM) has just announced a six-month trial licence that will enable everyone, from bedroom mumblers to multinational corporations, to pay a fee to podcast music owned by AIM-affiliated independent record labels. The repertoire on offer will be limited; artists affected by the initiative range from Basement Jaxx to Bloc Party, but there's no guarantee that the labels will put their entire catalogues on offer. Nevertheless, it's a bold move, and one that may prompt the major record labels to pull their fingers out. This, in turn, may enable Pete Mitchell to announce Style Council hits from yesteryear with even more confidence than he does already.

It's possible, however, that the major labels merely view podcasting as an irrelevant niche market. A short-sighted view, but almost understandable when you discover that one particular top-rated podcast consists of aimless banter between Dawn and Drew, a farm-dwelling couple from Wisconsin. So, while some organisations are tying themselves in knots over copyright, and genre exploiters trumpet their "web-based tools enabling podcasters to build multiple revenue streams around capabilities such as dynamic advertising insertion", Drew manages, incredibly, to hold a global audience rapt by merely chatting to Dawn about the chickens. Not so much the Modfather, as the Podfather.

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