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Trying to Make Sense of the RIAA's Latest Crackdowns on College Students

6 May 2007

RIAA Preisident CARY SHERMAN recently appeared on the ED SCHULTZ show to explain rather drastic measures he’s taking to address the industry crisis. Here are some issues I wish he had addressed:

1.The Rise and the Fall of the Single

In 1966, it was very common for a #1 pop hit to stay on Billboard’s Top 40 for only 12-16 weeks. By 1986, the amount of time for most songs on “The American Top 40” had nearly doubled, which meant that there were fewer # 1 songs. More importantly, turnover time was now slower, with slower rotation, which helped to consolidate the music industry, closing it off to wider variety (employing a corporate management supermodel often in the name of standards of quality control), and in the process created a bigger separation between those musicians’ who could be heard through official channels and those who found themselves classified as part of the ‘underground’ (and later, ‘alternative’). Officially, at least, this process has continued (without swinging back) until today.

The single was on its last legs in 1986; this is a separate issue from the simultaneous obsolescence of vinyl as an industry standard. But the rise of the CD certainly contributed to the death of the single (even if that wasn’t part of the original intention for switching over to the then-new technology). The brief heyday, or transitional government, of cassettes that occurred in between the vinyl monarchy and the CD politburo, sold us the cassingle, but neither that nor the CD single quite caught on—in part because of the inflated prices; in part because the major labels didn’t really seem to want it to catch on. Turning its back on the single temporarily increased profits, but also began to spark the as yet inchoate, unorganized, grumblings of consumers (and music consumers, while no more fickle than consumers of functional appliances, are less likely to be content seeing themselves as consumers). The single may not quite be dead, but the need for it, or something like it, still far exceeds the access the industry provides for it.

2.The Rise of the Economy of Scarcity as an Industry Standard

Related to the fall of the single, (as cause, effect and parallel manifestation) is the attempt to create, or impose, an economy of scarcity on its artists. In the early 1970s, musicians were often sued for not delivering an album on time (e.g. EMMETT RHODES). Labels often would expect more than one album a year; artists were encouraged to flood the market. By the early 1990s, an artist like PRINCE was being sued for exactly the opposite reason, for wanting to release more than one album a year. Theorists of the law and supply and demand could offer many justifiable reasons for this, and I’m not saying one way is better than the other; there are cases for each position that exploited artists, but also others in which the artist’s creativity as well as sales benefited by such management.

Nonetheless, the change to an economy of scarcity, along with the by-now almost mandatory adherence to the rules of higher production costs (again, in the name of standards and progress) had the effect of tilting the ‘music business’ equation more lopsidedly away from music and more toward business (not that they need be opposed), and this has certainly effected the kind of music that is able to pass through the official marketplace channels (I’m careful not to say censors).

3.The Rise of The CD (as an extension of the introduction of Album Oriented Rock 20 years prior)

Around the same time the idea of the single was being outmoded, the record industry began to focus more attention on targeting those with vinyl collections. More industry resources were put into getting people to “upgrade to CDs.” There was a little more resistance to this than there was 20 years earlier, at the beginnings of the era when the album began to supplant the single as primary medium because in the 1960s the album was marketed more as an artistic, creative improvement rather than simply a technological one. By the 1980s more artists as well as consumers began to question the ‘freedom’ originally promised by the album over the single, but they also had become more skeptical of the 1960’s myth of music being an agent of change for social progress. Perhaps technological progress was the best we could do after all, the heads of industry may have reasoned. I don’t even have to go so far as to say the emphasis on technological progress was designed to co-opt the hope of social progress that informed many people’s passion for music, however delusional or retro such notions may have seemed during the RONALD REAGAN/GEORGE BUSH I years.

Indeed, twenty-to-thirty year old classic rock albums (with bonus tracks on occasion) were (and still are) advertised at least as frequently as newer music. Not just because you can make more money off the dead (NEIL YOUNG’s still alive, etc), and not just because a youthful under-30 category didn’t dominate (consumer) demographics in the 1980s and 1990s as much as it did in the 1955-1975 period. Part of the reason for this difference is because, for many, pop music hadn’t changed as significantly in the last 30-40 years as it had changed in the previous 30-to-40 years. Many young people still hold THE BEATLES, BOB DYLAN, THE JACKSON FIVE, BLACK SABBATH, STEVIE WONDER, and others, as paradigmatic precursors to their sound well into this century. Even today, DEATH CAB FOR CUTIE or JOHN LEGEND exist largely within that pop rock framework (and often the phrase ‘watered down,’ is used today, whether fairly or unfairly, as in ‘watered down STOOGES,’), while in 1970, it was rare for anyone under 30 to invoke DEAN MARTIN, or even FATS DOMINO. One could even argue that more of the under-30 crowd appreciate Martin or FRANK SINATRA, or even Domino and ELVIS PRESLEY today than they did in 1970.

The CD didn’t force younger people to buy more Beatles albums than those by THE REPLACEMENTS, but it did help keep the ‘60s generation stuck on their now ‘classic’ music, and draw resources away promoting great bands that could have appealed across generations as The Beatles, for instance did. The seeming paradox is that the fashions changed faster when the technology was more stable (the reign of vinyl will prove to be longer than the reign of the CD).

4.The Atomization of the Music Business (Allegedly For Its Own Good)

When The Beatles first ‘blew up’ in America, it was in part because The ED SULLIVAN show was a “something for everyone” variety show; musically, though, it focused on just the top 40 radio of the time. One of the achievements (perhaps the most profound one) of the 1960’s much touted ‘cultural awakening’ was a move away from chart universalism into specific niche markets. On the very basic level of retail, it was during the 1970s that the record store as a concept grew; before that, many people bought the latest smash at places like Sears. The rise of the (almost) exclusively music-based magazine, and beyond that, the subgenre specific music magazine, geared to a particular ‘individual’ lifestyle also occurred during this time. TV began 24-hour programming, and with the development of cable and its proliferation of channels, further atomization occurred. The record industry is still scratching its heads trying to discover adequate ways to deal with these changes. Even if the RIAA is successful in putting an end to what it calls piracy, if it doesn’t find innovative ways to address these issues closer to the root, it will be a hollow victory indeed.

Top 40 Radio was free. Increasingly there’s pay radio, pay cable, etc. The heyday of college radio, for all its progressive potential, is largely over, at least if we see it as a genuinely alternative taste arbiter, with deep connections to a contemporary local scene (some say such an argument is also retro; I’d be willing agree if there weren’t as many vital local music scenes and musicians that are not represented even ‘left of the dial’). The verdict is still out on podcasting (see my piece on KYOU), but one doesn’t get charts and particular songs being pushed by personality DJs like WOLFMAN JACK so much these days.

These facts all predate the Napster crisis of the past decade, but the current industry crisis can not be dealt with adequately without considering them. Digital downloading, file-sharing, and iPod technology is not in itself a utopian grassroots solution to this, nor is the illusion of increased atomization some celebrate, at least as long as local scenes, cultures, and the musicians and DJ personalities remain largely off the radars of the major media conglomerates. Yet the mere fact that the industry has been reacting to some of these recent developments more like a police force of a “war on terror” may provide a golden opportunity for any music/organization mogul/entrepreneur who realizes there can be a profit to be made by providing a large scale alternative to current industry models that would be more responsive to both the needs and dreams of the music consumer and producer (for, yea, verily, we traffic in dreams…)

In a way, the RIAA’s actions are laughable, especially from a public relations perspective. Even for those who would accept a war on terror in the political sphere, most artists still don’t want their record labels acting with the same self-righteousness in protecting its alleged property. It’s not that there wasn’t always exploitation of musicians in the record business; it’s that corruption is more visible now, and that now it’s directed toward the consumer as well as the producer.

Many musicians, from those who’ve made millions to the guy playing for nickels and dimes down the street, are not so concerned with protecting their (small) share of the property rights as they are getting heard, and having some artistic freedom. Sure, there are exceptions, but not enough to warrant the spurious claims that most musicians would benefit economically from the ceasing and desisting of file sharing, the streaming internet from community stations such as KPOO, etc. The example of RADIOHEAD’s Kid A, when it leaked the album on the Internet and it still sold more than their previous album, is precedent enough to rebuke these claims.

In approaching people who listen for free as guilty until proven innocent, the RIAA members have blown their cover and whatever service they may have provided as a bridge between producer and consumer is now visible as a wall as well, and this can be a good opportunity, especially if we remember it wasn’t all that long ago that it was different (if not necessarily better).

If this sounds like a tired argument to bring back the “good ‘ol days,” forgive me—that’s not at all my intention. It’s more about leveling the playing field so that newer musicians and younger consumers (as well as older people with less money) may have the same access to a music that is an expression of what is happening here and now rather than at the whims of an industry increasingly crushed by the weight of its own (however rich) history.

Technological progress wasn’t just about short-term greed and the bottom line. Fear was not so dominant. In the 1950s, the 49-cent single, the nickel machine, bar bands being allowed to play cover songs and not worry about the ASCAP police … these things are not necessarily just products of a bygone-era and need not be associated with an attempt to stage a rockabilly revival replete with BRIAN SETZER dress-alikes. They point to other models of a mass-cultural music possible today. And it’s odd that a younger generation of consumers is being punished for (and threatened) for exactly—or a very similar—thing that thrived in the repressive JOE MCCARTHY era when your grandma borrowed her first song from a friend … or called up the request DJ who would play some obscure song that became a local hit, and spread the wealth (and love) a little, and people could still make a living off of it.

 

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