Here's a hint: if I don't learn about new music, I can't buy new music

>> Monday, August 18, 2008

The story in the Washington Post is that negotiations between SoundExchange, internet radio stations, and the federal Copyright Royalty Board have broken down, and webcasters are looking at the apocalypse. This isn't exactly news so much as it's "ongoing news," a slow-motion disaster that's been unfolding for more than a year now. The short version is that SoundExchange--the organization representing the record labels--wants providers of streaming audio to pay twice as much in royalties as satellite radio, and to pay royalties that even commercial meatworld broadcasters--traditional radio--don't have to pay. Since most streaming radio stations subsist on sponsorship (including listener donations) or love, they don't have the revenue streams to give to the music industry corporations.

Which is the point. Anybody who thinks this is about anything else hasn't been paying attention. The industry will say it's about artists' rights and "fair compensation," but that's a load of crap. What this is really about is control: the business model of the traditional record industry is based on the industry's ability to be a gatekeeper for public tastes and popular interest, and any form of technology that marginalizes their role as gatekeepers has much the same effect on the corporations as a pointy piece of wood has on Dracula's black, bloodless heart. If I hear about an unsigned band online and buy their album on CDBaby, I've cut Universal Vivendi or EMI or SonyBMG completely out of the process--and out of the lion share of profit they'd score on a CD they told me to buy.

Sooner or later--perhaps later, from the way the wind is blowing, this model will change. When the rock hit the Earth sixty-five million years ago, the dinosaurs didn't drop off all at once: they staggered and choked and slowly died of starvation and dust over the course of days or weeks or months; as species, they died over the course of years. And so it is for the big labels, for the music industry as it's been constituted for the past ten or twenty years. They're going to die. They can't live in this environment. The plain and simple reality is that SoundExchange can delay the inevitable, but with so many people intertwined on the web and so many artists discovering they don't need to sign to a big label for exposure (much less distribution), the labels' role as arbiters of the popular taste is on the decline. Eventually they're going to have to find a way to be happier with fewer sales, and to accept that they can no longer manufacture pop superstars and slam them down our gullets because we have nothing else to listen to.

The funniest line in the Post piece is this one:

"Our artists and copyright owners deserve to be fairly compensated for the blood and sweat that forms the core product of these businesses," said Mike Huppe, general counsel for SoundExchange.

...ain't that a hoot? You do see the laugh-line, don't you? Mr. Huppe guilelessly mentions "copyright owners" desserts alongside the artists; apparently Mr. Huppe is prone to some form of honesty or he didn't get the memo telling him the issue is entirely about artists' rights and compensation. It's not at all clear how it's fair that a corporation that has acquired somebody else's copyright is entitled to compensation--it may be legal, but that's hardly the same thing, and you shouldn't have to be a lawyer to recognize that. Many of us, actually, find the prospect of a multi-billion dollar company profiting off the blood and sweat of others--others who historically have often been ripped-off victims of lousy contracts and shitty deals--more than a little unfair, morally offensive, even. (An aside: however, those who use this moral offense to legitimize piracy miss the point and/or break the law whether it's moral or not.)

Nor is it immediately clear how a streaming internet channel denies anyone of compensation they're due, unless you're of the mindset that anytime anyone hears a work, someone must be compensated. This is the mindset that leads to tortured mental constructions like the claim that somebody who overhears music played through a rolled-down car window is "stealing" music. The viewpoint, really, is that music is meant to paid for, it's not meant to be heard. That surely is not what Victor Hugo intended when he led the push for copyright reform that became the Berne Convention. It's not even a rational viewpoint at all.

SoundExchange also retorts that the streaming audio providers aren't doing enough to raise funds for themselves; if they go extinct, it's their own damn fault for not being sufficiently like the commercial radio stations that are increasingly unpleasant to listen to and are likely to see diminishing returns as alternatives like satellite radio become more commonplace in cars. I'm confident that SoundExchange understands that part of the appeal of satellite and internet radio is that they are commercial free, and they don't have to devote seventeen-to-twenty minutes out of every thirty to advertising. If internet radio listeners are driven away by advertising, all the sooner the stations' demise and people can go back to listening to what the Big Four told them to listen to, by God. And while we're on the subject of being told what to listen to and revenue sources: no doubt SoundExchange members would be happier with internet radio if the stations were as desperate for funds as their meatworld counterparts--desperate enough to need the quasi-legal "promotional" methods that have seeped into the gap left by the Payola scandal decades ago (or, happy thought: perhaps the internet stations can freely engage in Payola schemes with the big companies, since they're not subject to federal regulation--everyone, and by "everyone" I mean the record industry, wins!).

Most of the Post article focuses on Pandora, a service that sounds interesting although I've never used it; I'm more worried, just so you know, about my beloved SomaFM, a group of indie stations that subsists on donations and endures on love. (Lollipops and crisps, Radiohead might say.) SomaFM provides links to in their playlists, so you can click on a song you're listening to or just heard and immediately purchase it from an online retailer (I assume Pandora offers something similar). As far as fair compensation goes, it's harder to imagine fairer compensation than making a sale immediately and instantly, something meatspace radio can't offer. Look at the "Recent Music" sidebar on the right side of the screen, and on the date this entry is published the list of seven items includes three artists I learned about through SomaFM (Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins, Iron And Wine, and Calexico); the remaining four happen to be acts I've listened to since high school or college. All seven records/sets were purchased, none are bootlegs or pirates. So, out of seven recent record purchases, nearly half were artists who got my commerce via free, commercial-free streaming internet "radio." That can't be an unusual pattern.

But none of the acts on the list are whoever SoundExchange's clients are pushing this week. So I guess they don't count.

I'm looking forward to the death of the dinosaurs, and the life of good music.


Nathan Monday, August 18, 2008 at 10:41:00 AM EDT  

I'm sooooo out of date about anything to do with music, but I highly recommend Pandora. It's terrific.

John the Scientist Monday, August 18, 2008 at 11:35:00 AM EDT  

I have a collection of recordings called "Jazz the World Forgot".

The liner notes mention that before the recording industry took hold, there was tremendous variation in local musical tastes, and regional bands often touted their unique sounds. This went away after Louis Armstrong recorded the "Hot Fives" that changed jazz forever. Even the great Jelly Roll Morton faded away in the rush to get acts that sounded like Louis (JRM died in a fight at a club he was managing - not playing at - to pay the bills).

This system, based on limited access to technology, has ruled for ninety years. Of course the industry will fight back, but the legal system has to grow some common sense. I'm sure glad our current tort system was not around to help out the manufacturers of hurricane lamps when Edison invented the light bulb.

Eric Monday, August 18, 2008 at 1:04:00 PM EDT  

Some of that same variation in regional styles and tastes can be heard and observed in R. Crumb et al.: R. Crumb's Heroes of Blues, Jazz, & Country, a collection of artwork and accompanying CD celebrating American artists from the first half of the 20th century (see "Recently Read" sidebar for an Amazon link).

I would say it's not so much the legal system--at least in the judicial sense--as it is the executive and legislative elements here and abroad. The courts have been a bit all over the map on IP questions, but the music industry has had a great deal of success in influencing federal regulators and lawmakers on the Hill; not surprisingly, these are the same bodies most responsive to lobbying and campaign donations, an area where Big Music has an advantage over indie music and most new tech concerns. (One has to wonder if things wouldn't be worse right now if Apple, with a fair bit of financial clout and a lot of political sex appeal, hadn't joined on the side of digital distribution.)

John the Scientist Monday, August 18, 2008 at 1:34:00 PM EDT  

"influencing federal regulators"

Yeah I should have noted that. It's called "regulatory capture" and it's a big reason why I'm a libertarian.

Jeri Monday, August 18, 2008 at 8:38:00 PM EDT  

For some reason, the line from your post "anytime anyone hears a work, someone must be compensated" had me thinking of the It's a Wonderful Life quote:

"Everytime a bell rings, an angel gets its wings."

Do you think the RIAA would be satisfied with that? ;)

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