Is innovation in the popular music business headed for a
long dirt nap(ster)?
I'm not a musician or granola-eating socialist set against big business, but it is obvious to me that the music industry is the devil. Mind you, not the hot, saucy devil portrayed by Elizabeth Hurley on the big screen, nor the cute cartoon character named Hot Stuff from the annals of Richie Rich comic books. I'm talking about the sulfurous antichrist that condemns souls to eternal damnation, prancing around on cloven hooves and producing a new album by the Backstreet Boys. Music is an essential expression of the human soul, but the music industry is controlled by a gaggle of trolls, weasels and mucus-coated paramecium.
Ever since I blew my wad of allowance money on my first Foreigner eight-track tape in the late '70s, I knew that music was cool. All the long-haired cool kids in the Pontiac TransAms were listening to cool music at the Lota Burger. All the inscrutable girls with their blossoming bosoms and strawberry lip gloss listened to cool music. Music was a big part of growing up, and I slavishly followed the trends, listening to the late-night DJs. Just like generations before me, the music spoke to me: speaking the unspeakable, shocking the norms, and raging against the machine. The artists got rich, the record companies got rich, Bonham fondled a mudshark, and the fans were happy.
Imagine the scenario in 1985 when the fat, stogie-smoking record executives were shown the miracle of the compact disc. Their monkey intellects were incapable of recognizing the genie contained by this flat, shiny binary bottle. Instead, their greedy little hearts thought only of millions of music fans replacing their scratchy old vinyl LPs with superior-sound CDs, replicating their collections as the execs salted away more wampum for their love shack in the Caymans. Apparently, nobody realized that digital music never, ever decays or faces generational loss.
Ah, but then some MIT egghead cooked up a device that would let you make your own compact discs. The fat music moguls choked on their Presidentes, and got the lawyers on the phone, trying to block the ability of the consumer to record onto CDs. They lost, and the public began burning discs. Still, the fat tune weasels thought the losses were minimal. Until Al Gore invented the Internet.
Suddenly, music fans began sharing digital music files over the Internet, in much the same way as music fans have always shared music. It was a big hippie-style musical love-in. Only the music was digitized, and could be copied without a loss of quality, and was completely free. The music spread, and Napster showed the world how easy it was to get lots of music for nothing. Then, it was called "file sharing." Today, it is called "stealing." The record companies, caught with no way to distribute music profitably over the Internet, and finding it far easier to call the lawyers than to figure out a way to serve this market niche, shut Napster down.
True music fans realize that free music isn't fair to the artist. Would the world ever have gotten the opportunity to fall in love with Ricky Martin if he wasn't financially incentivized to record? Of course not, but let's not hold that against Ricky, but rather recognize that everybody works for money. Fine. But the artists don't see much money from their recordings: In fact, only about two to five percent of the purchase price goes back to the artist. Most of the rest of it goes to the record companies and the retailers, people who do nothing to produce music. In addition, the record companies shamelessly pump out albums of pure crap and foist it upon an unsuspecting public, perfectly content to let you pay for 12 tracks of audio offal that has little sonic resemblance to the two tracks getting radio play.
So the record companies shut down Napster. Capitalism being such a great motivator, the recording industry then devoted millions of dollars and resources to creating a user-friendly, profitable way to sell music on the Internet, satisfying a consumer demand while realizing profits. Oh, wait—the recording industry didn't do that, Steve Jobs did with iTunes. For those who don't know, iTunes is the unquestioned leader in online music sales, with hundreds of thousands of songs available to download for 99 cents each. Record companies collect royalties on every song sold, and iTunes turns a profit. In fact, iTunes has been so successful that the record companies recently tried to compel them to raise their prices. By now, iTunes is so dominant that the company essentially told the record companies to go stuff themselves or they'd quit offering their music on their service altogether.
Meanwhile, artist development is dead. "American Idol" is used as a career guide for artists and agents, and nothing innovative is pursued. The record companies develop artists to reflect what's already selling, not what's fresh or new or relevant. So the kids have a vast array of exactly the same music to choose from, which disenfranchises them, which leads to more underground music exchange. The record industry spends more time in frivolous copyright protection than in trying to foster new artists.
The list of stupidity continues: ASCAP won't let stores and restaurants play music without paying a licensing fee. They can't even play live music, because any live artist is "bound" to cover an ASCAP-protected song sooner or later. The Internet is now being scoured for Web sites with song lyrics on them, and the owners are being told to remove the lyrics, as they are copyrighted. Somewhere on the way to protecting the artists' rights, the rights of music lovers were aborted.
I hope some reptilian barrister from the RIAA or ASCAP reads this and bristles at the gross mischaracterization of their industry. I hope they find this column unfair, and grow apoplectic with rage that they can't control the fourth estate. And as a guy who no longer buys CDs, I hope they appreciate the depths of my disappointment. I still love music, but the best recordings I've heard over the last few years are conspicuously absent of copyright warnings. But most of all, I hope that they change their ways before we are all witness to the day the music died.
Henry Lightcap lives atop a vast underground collection of
vintage LPs, somewhere in Las Cruces.