Downloading the Revolution

Lost somewhere between the impending war with Iraq and the hype of the recent Grammy awards is the fact that we are living in the final days of the music industry. The big five record companies -- Sony, EMI, Universal, BMG, and AOL Time Warner--are losing lots of money and it can't all be attributed to the economic downturn.  CD sales fell 11 percent in the first half of 2002. The industry, once a cash cow for its corporate owners, now appears to be a financial liability.

How could this happen?  How could the once great music industry be in such bad shape?  It's all because of you.    

You, the music consumer, have made it known that you are tired of overpriced CD's and paying for 12 bad songs to get two good ones. You have taken matters into your own hands. Armed with a computer, a CD burner and an Internet connection, you are letting your voice be heard.

Blank CD sales were up 40 percent in 2001. File sharing systems like Kazaa have more people sharing files than Napster ever had.  Albums appear on these services weeks before they are even released.  At its core, all this file sharing is an act of civil disobedience against the Big 5's monopolistic greed. The people, armed with the tools of revolution (not exactly the same tools Marx had in mind but effective nevertheless), are fighting back. The multi-billion dollar record industry could have easily led the way in MP3 technology and delivery mechanisms, but they couldn't see past their own profit margins in order to read the writing on the wall.  Now all they've been able to muster are a couple of web sites crippled by paranoid security features that don't allow the user to transfer the music file they've just paid to download to an MP3 player or burn it to CD. The technology boat has sailed, and they were not on board.

The industry isn't going quietly however. Using the Recording Industry Association of America, the Big 5 are using some tactics that are downright unconstitutional. Using well-greased senators like Earnest "Fritz" Hollings, (D-South Carolina) they hope to pass legislation that would require electronic devices to come with copy protections built in.  This is an attempt to legislate manufacturers of CD burners and MP3 players out of business. The industry has also been known to use a tactic called "spoofing."

Spoofing is the act of dumping large numbers of fake MP3 files onto file sharing networks to throw off and frustrate people looking for shared music. This is more of a nuisance to downloaders than a real threat. The most Orwellian strategy is the use of spy companies like New Media Strategies, Cyveillance, and Vidius to report IP addresses of file sharers to the RIAA.

This information can be used in two ways; first the RIAA can use it to try and muscle Internet Service Providers into providing information on the person using that IP address and then fire off cease and desist letters to the users, or with the assistance of the ISP, hackers can be used to break into individual computers and delete what appear to be "pirated" files.  This is clearly unlawful search and seizure and would do little to help the record industry's cause. In fact it could have the opposite effect, speeding the demise of the record industry by encouraging their supporters to abandon them.  

Then there's the litigation front. The RIAA was successful in defeating Napster in this way and Kazaa may be next, but this tactic is costly and useless when the next peer to peer network pops up just days after its predecessor goes offline.  They could always sue individual file sharers, but even the myopically greedy record industry can see that this would create a public relations nightmare.  Just picture case names like RIAA v. Billy Thompson, and you get the idea.  

The battle has the corporations that control the record companies warring with themselves.  Sony is a giant in the consumer electronic industry, but that status now puts their electronics division at odds with their music division. This internal conflict at Sony has caused them to fall well behind competitors like Apple in the lucrative MP3 player market.  The floundering AOL is trying to stay afloat by hyping its broadband internet access, but one of the main uses for broadband is downloading music files.  This causes a conflict with AOL Time Warner's music division.  Eventually these companies will side with their more profitable ventures and abandon their music labels, but in the meantime we can all just sit back and watch them tear themselves apart.  After all, this show has more carnage than any reality TV show could hope for.

Musicians themselves seem divided about the whole issue.  The more wealthy and well established musicians come down heavily on the side of the industry.  Who can forget the long list of well-fed musicians crying foul at every opportunity over the Napster debacle.  However there are some well-known defenders of file sharing.

 At the same time the members of Metallica were bellyaching every time some 18-year-old kid downloaded one of their songs, there were people like Chuck D. of Public Enemy writing editorials supporting the new technology. The band Chumbawamba even created a song specifically for sharing.  The song "Pass It Along" sampled songs (without permission, of course) from the most outspoken Napster bashers.  

Vocalist Dunstan Bruce said, "It's hilarious listening to the big record companies bleating on about how file sharing is damaging art, they wouldn't recognize art or artistic integrity if it bounded over and bit them on the arse."

Many artists are silent on the issue, not wanting to offend the pockets that feed them or the leash that binds them. Lost in all this are the less wealthy musicians.  Usually these artists are from the less commercial genres, and without major label backing the Internet and file sharing are the best ways for them to promote their craft.  It allows people to hear their music who otherwise wouldn't have. These musicians have little in common with the likes of Metallica, Emenem and Britney Spears. They don't see their own fans as thieves. They understand that the music industry is a dinosaur, and that soon everything is going to change. To them this is an opportunity, not a burden.

So after all this is over, who wins?  You, of course.  The music industry will collapse and in its wake at first will be chaos.  But after the dust has settled, something new will grow in its place.  I have no idea what will fill the void left by this slain monster, but I know it will be a wonderful opportunity for musicians to build direct relationships with their fans.  It will give them the chance to have the sort of intimate relationship with their listeners that is usually reserved for local unsigned bands.

By embracing new technology, musicians will be in control of their own destiny, something they never had under the old corporate system.  The money will still be there. Just because you take away the corporate music industry structure doesn't mean that you take away the demand for music. We may not have the mega-stars that we have today, but the opportunities for musical diversity will increase exponentially.

Instead of being told what to listen to by some CEO who has about as much in common with the average person as George W. Bush has in common with Noam Chomsky, we'll have the most culturally diverse music selection in the history of the world.  Musical boundaries will be pushed more readily, and new ideas will be expressed more freely. The current four or five major musical genres will be replaced by dozens of interwoven styles speaking from the people to the people. Gone will be the days of prepackaged bubble gum pop. The corporate star-making cookbook will be burned.  The rules will change forever.  And to think, it all started with you.

Freelancer writer Christopher George lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina.>

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