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newIssue 1: Changing the Model

From the Mouth of Micah
Issue #1

Changing the Model

A few days ago from this writing, the RIAA beat some woman up in court to the tune of $220,000 USD. Apparently, she had 1700+ songs from Kazaa. That's $130 per song, roughly, for those who don't want to do the math. The tech and entertainment outlets have been covering this one to death, calling it a decisive victory for the RIAA. What exactly did they win?

Kazaa and all the p2p sites are still open for business. So are all the torrent sites, as is Usenet. Right now, thousands upon thousands of people are on those sites, sharing movies, games, music, TV shows, etc. So how much ground did the RIAA really gain? Zero. They probably spent more money suing her than the judgment they won. They definitely spent more money suing her than they'll actually get from her.

All the major media companies are saying that this judgment sent a message that file sharing won't be tolerated. I say malarkey. I also say that the message being sent really says "Hey, dumb-ass consumer! Look a little harder at our business practices." Eventually, people will really start to look; and actually, I'd argue that they already have. People are far more educated about royalties, and how their favorite recording artists get paid, than has ever been the case in the past. Yes, there is still a bunch of ignorance out there regarding industry practices; after all, the people are want to dream. Overall though, I think it's safe to say that I see and hear about more and more "Boycott the RIAA" sentiment everyday. I'm not going to speak on the "evils" of the RIAA in great detail, as that would take too much of our time. I will, however, make wild and mostly unfounded accusations that, when taken as a whole, link the RIAA (and similar agencies) to a broader conspiracy that's out to destroy free-market capitalist Liberal democracy.

Mostly Unfounded Accusation #1: MTV Ruined Music

I don't believe that it was intentional, or at least, not at first. I'm 31, so I'm old enough to remember MTV before the name was a misnomer. Yes, believe it or not, MTV once played music videos, uninterrupted by anything except for commercials and the occasional VJ. It's true, I swear. As MTV grew in popularity, they started to realize that they had power. Power which, in my opinion, they've wielded unwisely. Rather than use that power to elevate the music video to an art form, MTV instead became one big commercial directed at advertising pre-packaged lifestyles to the target demographic. When MTV came upon the realization that the masses actually follow trends, it was then only a matter of time before they started to actively decide what the trends would be. For instance, I remember when the only thing MTV was interested in was boy bands. Then, overnight, they shifted from the Backstreet Boys to the Strokes. The Boys have never been the same.

Mostly Unfounded Accusation #2: The RIAA Ruined the Music Business

A number of years ago, I had my first experience with the music business, and I left with both a bad taste in my mouth and a fear of losing my anal virginity. Later, when I met Cyric and eventually formed Marienkind with him, I related the experience and then recommended a book that my lawyer had recommended to me. It was, and is, called "This Business of Music." It's basically a 500 page text book on how not to get ass-raped by a music executive. If you're a musician, I suggest that you read it, even if you have no interest in dealing with the "Business."

Anyway, when we formed Marienkind, we both agreed that the record-deal paradigm just wasn't for us. I had already done the running around, the shows, the conventions, and so on. I met a lot of great people and had a lot of fun doing all those things, but to me, it seemed like a lot of work for no benefit. Even if we were to secure a record deal, we'd be running the risk that our record could end up on a shelf and that we would be tax write-offs, with all the music we created owned wholly by a faceless corporation. We also felt that technology had gotten to the point that it was starting to make the record companies irrelevant. Finally, we firmly believed that, once broadband became ubiquitous, digital distribution would become both desirable and cheap. Now, before you go and accuse me of slapping myself on the back, understand that this is not a backslapping exercise.

I have a job that I go to everyday for at least 8 hours, and so does Cyric. Neither of our jobs have anything to do with any aspect of the entertainment business. So, my point is, if we had a feeling that things would turn out the way they did, why didn't the high powered execs at the various companies that form the RIAA also come to the same conclusions? It's not like we were being visionary, as there were a ton of other people talking about how broadband would change the internet, and Napster had already shown us the way. And as a side note, if you were to have told me 5 years ago that Apple would have done what it did with the iPod and iTunes thingies, I would have laughed in your face.

Something else happened this week that ties directly into what I'm saying: Radiohead has decided to allow people to download their new album, and pay whatever they feel it's worth. It's an interesting development, but hardly revolutionary, at least from the digital distribution angle. Prince has been doing it for years, so has Ice-T, and a whole slew of ex-major label artists and indie (as in independent) bands. I'm still trying to figure out a GOOD reason as to why it's not more common. Obviously the RIAA missed the boat, but they don't really think that it will come back, do they?

The boat that both the RIAA and the MPAA are still waiting for has been taken over by pirates. What the pirates are killing is not the music industry, but what we call the music business. The music industry will always be around. People will always want new music. People will always want to go out and see shows. Always. The music business, on the other hand, is a set of rules and laws created and maintained by and for the major labels to keep control of the money flowing in and out of the music industry. The music business explains why that new song by an artist no one has ever heard of is played twice an hour every hour on your local top 40 station. It also explains why, after disappointing sales of the album, said new artist disappears, only to be replaced by someone new. Whether or not an artist has talent no longer has any meaning; rather, of ever increasing importance is the artist's cult of personality. Take Britney Spears. For some reason, people actually give a fuck, and I'm not just talking about the crying dude on YouTube. We all know all about the drama. I hear she's coming out with a new single soon, and, love it or hate it, everyone will hear it and hear about it. I'm not trying to rag on Britney, I don't give a shit if she makes a comeback or not. I'm just using her as an example because her stardom is completely manufactured. She may not have been the first, but she certainly is the most visible at the moment.

Mostly Unfounded Accusation #3: Piracy Is Not Always Bad

Now, given the point of this site, I know that I'm walking a slippery slope. Yes, eventually, we'll get our shit together and get this goddamned record out. And we will want to sell it. However, if I was on a torrent site and saw that people were actively sharing, I wouldn't be upset. I'd be happy that people were listening. I would, however, lament the fact that we're losing out on monies that could be spent to expand our efforts, as we have some cool ideas. In this scenario everyone suffers. BUT, if enough interest can be generated, many people who would have never heard of Marienkind will have, and some of them may turn into paying customers. There are people who believe in supporting the things they enjoy. If I have to go through 100000 people who don't, just to find 1000 who do, then that is something I'm willing to do.

Kenny Chesney is not going hungry because of piracy. Nor is Metallica. [As another side note, I watched VH1's Behind the Music: Metallica. Lars Ulrich had the temerity to say that he didn't care that kids were downloading Metallica off of Napster. He was mad that there were unreleased tracks up for grabs. At least, that's what he said. After the band had taken a huge PR hit, and just as they were about to release a new record. Funny, eh?] Judging by all the Bentleys and bling, rappers seem to be doing all right as well. Why is that, when piracy is so rampant? Mostly because artists make the huge majority of their money through concerts, appearances, and various licensing deals. Does piracy hurt their bottom lines? Certainly, but not to the extent they claim. David Bowie went from busted to billionaire by licensing his songs to commercials and movies. How much Vitamin Water does 50 Cent actually drink? Does it matter? No. As long as his fanbase supports his brand, the makers of Vitamin Water will be happy to market to them.

Earlier, I said that MTV, and to a large extent music in general, has become a commercial for advertising pre-packaged lifestyles to their respective demographics. Corporations love to pigeon-hole people. It's easier to market to the masses when you can put them all in little boxes. If the box you're in doesn't have enough people, you and your not-filled-enough box are ignored. If there are too many people in the box, they create an alternative. For instance, you're in a box labeled "Britney." Everybody in the box, for whatever demographic reason, is a target for the Britney Spears Marketing Machine. You, however, think that the box o' Britney is too crowded. You also think that Britney can't really sing. So they put you in a new box, labeled "Christina." She can sing. Other than that, is there any real difference? Not rebellious enough? Here's a box called "Avril." Not enough soul? Here's one called "Beyonce," and another called "Alicia," and yet another called "Rhianna." The funny thing is that no matter what station you listen to, or watch, the same companies advertise the same products, sometimes with slightly different commercials. Notice, you've never seen a McDonald's commercial featuring neo-primitives. You've never seen a Pontiac commercial playing Wumpscut. And for whatever bizarre reason, MAC cosmetics does not cater to goth girls ...or boys. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Your box is too small.
  2. Your little box scares the big box. The big box is where most of the money comes from, and it doesn't make sense to upset them. And if it don't make sense, then it damn sure don't make dollars. (Sorry, but I couldn't help it.)
  3. Those who make the boxes are not from your box. Because your box is small there's not a lot of hard evidence as to how to market a product to you. Note that in commercials targeted at Blacks, somebody is always singing on a corner or steps. I've never seen anything like that in real life, but I see it constantly on commercial television. Just imagine the Goth McDonald's commercial.

These things all tie to something far larger than the various entertainment businesses. These things are baby steps to Armageddon. The dystopian cyberpunk futures envisioned by Phillip K Dick, William Gibson, and many others, is literally around the corner. As late as 1998, there were six major recording labels. By 1999, there were five. Here in 2007, there are only four: Universal, Sony BMG, Warner, and EMI. These four companies account for over 70% of all retail music sold across the world, and over 80% in the US. The RIAA allows them to work in collusion without legally being an outright monopoly. Said collusion allows them to lobby for laws that will protect and nourish the de-facto MegaCorporation. Said lobbies help to create and maintain a culture of corruption in our governments. Said culture of corruption allows the corporations to continue doing what they do. It's not just the RIAA. It's the oil companies, the pharmaceutical companies, and the car companies. It's radio stations. TV stations, and communications providers. Nascent monopolies are forming and re-forming all around us. There is a thin line between free-market capitalism and corporatism, and a thinner line between corporatism and fascism.

Now, I'm not talking about Nazi Germany, race-based fascism. I'm talking about Benito Mussolini Italian fascism. The type where the working classes are destroyed for corporate interest. The type where taxpayers become responsible to private enterprises. Sound familiar? You may say that I'm being alarmist, and you may be right. All I can do is to call it like I see it. The way I see it, people are getting left out in the cold so that corporations can make more money. The thing is, it doesn't matter how much you pay, as long as you pay all you can as often as they want you to. You will not be catered to, you will cater. Your interests will not be served, instead, you will serve an interest. Those who do not will have social pressure applied. Some will fold, and the remainder, now completely powerless, at least as far as market value, will be ignored. Your box will close, only to be opened when they think that they have something to sell you.

Marginalization of various subcultures and reliance on copycat acts is what's killing the music business. Rejecting technology because of fear is what's killing the music business. Not recognizing opportunity is what's killing the music business. Lastly, suing people for more money than they'll ever be able to pay is killing the music business.

I hate to say it, but artists need the RIAA. Not in its current parasitic form, but as an organization which actually protects the rights of artists from those who would profit from the work of said artists. It would be impossible for a band to monitor all of the things the RIAA monitors. File-sharing, though? Waste of time and resources.

Now, some of you may ask about solutions. Mine is simple. Put the whole catalog online. Everything. Immediately. Have one subscription based service for all, monthly and yearly rates. Download anything you want, anywhere you want, in any format, and DRM free. No time limits on the content. No watermarks. If the RIAA had done this 5 years ago, piracy wouldn't be what it is now. If they do it now, people will bite (ask Apple). If the RIAA fails to make any changes, the pirates will give it all away, and no amount of litigation will stop them.