Pop & Circumstance: Rock stars unite

Remember when musicians used to get together in the name of some generally harmless humanitarian cause? “We are the World”? Farm Aid? “We are the Farm”? (Yeah, I know it’s an easy joke. Shut up. I’m a columnist for a college newspaper, what do you expect? Leave me alone).

Well, those days are no more. This past week has seen a group of disgruntled recording artists sign on for a new ad campaign against online music piracy. You know who’s behind this, don’t you: that cartoonishly evil empire calling itself the Recording Industry Association of America. Well, so what if the RIAA wants to yet again wave their finger in our faces for peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing. Nuts to them, right? Like a bunch of greedy, faceless record label bozos are really going to persuade us to give up our mp3s.

Well, dear friends, this may not be the case. The ad campaign is funded in part by the RIAA, but it’s a direct result of musicians needing to air their grievances against P2P clients. Which means that artists as disparate as Britney Spears, Eminem and Neil Young actually got together and agreed to lend their abilities to Music Talented, an organization funded by corporate greed-heads like the RIAA and legitimate musician unions alike. Just check out the laundry list of big names Music Talented has rounded up for this gig: Brian Wilson, Eminem, Stevie Wonder, Shakira, Madonna, P.O.D., Marilyn Manson, 3 Doors Down, Barenaked Ladies, Elton John, Kiss’s Gene Simmons, Hootie and the Blowfish, Vanessa Carlton, Rush, the Wallflowers, Ashanti, P. Diddy, the Goo Goo Dolls, The Vines and B.B. King, to name a few. The list goes on and on.

This is a little different from Bob Dole telling you to take Viagra or Shaquille O’Neal telling you not to shoot black tar heroin. You’re smart enough not to care about celebrities shilling for various causes and brand names, so unless you’re into Shaq’s hip-hop career, you’re probably going to go right out, regardless of what the big guy says, and jam some of that smack straight into your goddamn eyeballs. I know I am.

But the bond between musician and fan is sacred. More than sacred, in fact. So what do you do when your favorite artists accuse you of stealing music from them and distributing it for free via file-sharing?

Now, OK, if the Goo Goo Dolls stop me on the street and yell at me for being a music pirate, I’m going to kick the three of them in the junk and run away laughing like an idiot. But, that’s because I hate the Goo Goo Dolls. And if P. Diddy tries the same thing, I’ll ignore it, because Puffy’s worth more money than God himself. Who’s the victim if I steal from Puffy? The bodyguard whom he promised a Bentley?

I’ll probably listen to the Wallflowers, if only because Bob Dylan is that Wallflowers guy’s dad, and I’ve actually fainted in the presence of people who met Bob for five minutes in the ’70s. But the Wallflowers themselves are pretty awful, so who wants to steal their music, let alone buy it?

Still – B.B. King. . .Gene Simmons. . .Madonna. . .Elton John. . .if they tell me that I’m stealing their music, not only am I going to listen, I’m going to think twice about P2P mp3 sharing. I’m serious. And I had no idea that so many artists felt that way.

Last year was the first time that blank CDs sold more than actual music CDs. The number of P2P users right now is much larger now than it ever was during Napster’s heyday. Music piracy shows no signs of slowing down in the coming years, and record labels have yet to find an answer for mp3 sharing.

Over the years, I’ve justified my personal file-sharing activities in several different ways. One, for a $17 CD, the artist sees maybe one or two dollars of that money in royalties. The rest goes to that stupid record company and those Perrier-swilling execs. Two, sharing mp3s is the same as your friend making you a mix tape – and how can that be illegal? And three, music is more than a commercial product – it’s an art form that’s meant to be shared, passed around and, most of all, enjoyed.

And this is all true – to an extent. But you cannot deny that at some level, P2P file sharing is stealing – and how can you steal from your favorite artist, the artist whose music has always been there when you’ve been down, whom you feel so close to, who has had such an effect on your life? When I saw the Music United ad with Brian Wilson, I felt so bad that I erased all of my Beach Boys mp3s. Brian deserves better. And Dr. Dre has made so much great music in the past decade, maybe we owe it to him to buy his stuff. For me though, the real kicker was seeing Stevie Wonder’s name on that list. I’m sorry Stevie! I. . .I can’t steal from a near-deity such as Mr. Wonder. I love the man.

Maybe the Music United campaign won’t affect you the way it has affected me. But it’s a significant move in the war on file-sharing because it involves the artists and gives them a forum to speak directly to their audience. I doubt it will have much of an effect, simply because no one ad campaign could convince millions of people to start paying for their online music. But consider – when your favorite band stares you down and accuses you of piracy, how are you possibly going to ignore them?