Pop & Circumstance: The people v. the music industry

“What you got back home, little sister, to play your fuzzy warbles on? I bet you got, say, pitiful, portable picnic players. Come with uncle and hear all proper! Hear angels’ trumpets and devils’ trombones. You are invited!”

– “Clockwork Orange”

For those of us who love music, it is a good time to be alive. We can download pretty much any song we want, burn it all on a blank compact disc and save the $16.99 we would have paid to buy a single CD with maybe two or three decent songs.

Don’t like what’s on MTV? Download the music videos that you want to see. Don’t like what’s on Top 40 radio? Listen to free Internet radio stations that play music you like to hear.

Technology has made it perfectly possible to consume music without paying those who wrote, performed and produced it. I am still amazed by this. How did we get a leg up on the multi-billion dollar a year music industry?

Because there is no doubt that the industry is headed south these days. We integrated a particular technology into our lives faster than the record companies could incorporate it into their business, and that alone is why we have free access to any music we want. Â

In a recent poll, 73 percent of people ages 18-25 with regular access to the Internet admitted to illegally downloading music in the past month. Only 16 percent of those legally paid for a music product over the same time. It’s no wonder that the industry has lost money every year since 1999. Remember the fuss over Napster? These days, the number of Kazaa users (60 million) dwarfs the number of file-sharers during Napster’s heyday. And those 60 million are sharing literally billions of pieces of copyrighted information such as movies and music.

Yet 2003 will be remembered as the year the music empire struck back. Already, the pressure is on to pull the plug on Kazaa and similar file-sharing services. But don’t expect this to happen any time soon, since most of the post-Napster P2P applications depend on anonymous, decentralized servers that will be difficult to find. Plus, the music industry saw two years ago that disabling Napster did very little to curb illegal music downloads.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) will instead focus its sights on the two other figures in the file-sharing equation: ISPs (Internet Service Providers) and the users themselves.

The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a controversial little bill that was passed to enforce the integrity of copyrighted information online. It is a predictably vague and confusing piece of legislation, and yet it provides the industry’s great legal hope. In what could set an important precedent, a federal judge recently ordered Verizon Communications, an ISP, to cough up the name of a user who uploaded over 600 songs in one day.

To Verizon’s credit, it is resisting the subpoena. Yet the threat to the user’s anonymity remains, and we have to ask why the RIAA would go after a single user when there is no way for them to prosecute 60 million such individuals.

Maybe the RIAA is crazy enough to believe that ISPs should be liable for the online activities of their clients. Maybe the RIAA thinks that they can stop piracy by making an example out of a few unlucky Kazaa users. But the chief executive of the RIAA, Hilary Rosen, has recently made a few revealing admissions about her organization’s motives. The record labels, she says, know that they are fighting a war they cannot win. The amount of time and money that they would need to spend to eliminate the threat of piracy is ridiculous, and they’re losing money every passing day anyway.

What the RIAA is trying to do is stop the growth of file sharing while the industry develops a profitable alternative to illegal downloading. And it better be a good alternative, because otherwise the music industry really will sink for good.

In the meantime, we’ve got lots of RIAA lawsuits and finger-pointing to entertain us. Personally, I feel that the record labels will eventually regain their footing and change the way that we consume music.

Online subscription services are probably the best bet, even though several of those businesses are barely breaking even right now. Whatever. All I know is that it is going to be increasingly tough to download the music you want to hear in 2003, so good luck.

Here are a couple of legal music services that are pretty good, in case you get sick of being a criminal:

www.weenradio.com

Ween are so far ahead of themselves, it’s sick. They have put their entire recorded catalogue on streaming Internet broadcast 24/7 plus tons of rare live songs. They use this as a way to sell their own recordings and promote their own music and it works.

Don’t be surprised to see more bands do something like this. Plus, they’re incredible. This is one of the best music sites.

www.nugs.net

This is another great idea. This site takes high-quality Phish and Dead concerts and puts them up for download for a very reasonable monthly fee. Bootlegs are cool and all, but they don’t sound this good. Go check out some of the free samples. I’d be a subscriber, but Phish sucks. Still, it is a good idea.

www.littlestevensundergroundgarage.com

Steven Van Zandt (of E-Street band) hosts the best radio program on the net every Sunday night. The archive of shows is extensive, and the music is unparalleled. Focusing on ’60s and ’70s garage and punk rock, this site takes the bloated corpse of rock and roll radio, revives it, and puts it squarely into the 21st century.