The Times They Are A‑Changin’

The Times They Are A‑Changin’.
The conflict between music lovers and the recording industry is a story I follow. I do so because it’s a clear illustration of Postmodern economics, a war between people and the institutionalism of a Modernist culture. The end of this is already written. The people, the consumers of music, those who establish the market, will win. Moreover, the industry will be in chaos before artists come to their senses and start marketing directly to consumers.

This is the most exciting David and Goliath story since the original, and it’ll end the same way.

There have been a lot of interesting developments in this ongoing story this week. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) filed another 500+ lawsuits against their customers for what they view as pirating music. I don’t disagree with that term, but I view the effort as a smokescreen for the real issues, which are homogenized, bad music and corporate greed in the form of price gouging.

The mother of a teenager in New Jersey has filed a counter suit against the RIAA under the RICO statute. The Register tells the story:

Michele Scimeca received a notice from the RIAA in December after her child used the Kazaa networks for a school project. She has countersued labels Sony, Universal and Motown by claiming that the demands for reimbursement of $150,000 per infringement falls foul of the 1970 Organized Crime and Control Act, better known as the RICO statute after Title IX of the Act: Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Statute.

That’s certainly a description that many would argue fits the major labels like a glove. But can it stand up?

The answer is probably “no.” The problem for the institution here is another round of bad publicity, of people putting the RIAA in its proper light as the bad guy.

In another Register story, we learn of an act of “coördinated civil disobedience” next Tuesday:

Anti-RIAA activists at Downhill Battle are leading the charge for what they call “Grey Tuesday.” The Web site along with other as yet unnamed coconspirators will offer downloads of DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album for 24 hours. The groups pitch this as a protest against EMI’s attempts to stifle distribution of the album, which combines Jay-Z’s the Black Album and the Beatles’ White Album.

EMI has served DJ Danger Mouse and record shops selling the Grey Album with cease and desist orders. The label releases Beatles’ records and doesn’t want its intellectual property abused.

The Grey Tuesday backers say EMI’s actions are a form of censorship against art.

This is textbook Postmodernism being expressed through art, and the world had better get ready for it. I’ve not heard the Grey Album, but reviewers have praised it.

But the most stunning piece of journalism about the whole issue this week comes from one of my favorite recording artists, Don Henley of the Eagles. Henley has written a marvelous op-ed piece for the Washington Post called Killing The Music that is must reading for anybody interested in this issue.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the root problem is not the artists, the fans or even new Internet technology. The problem is the music industry itself. It’s systemic. The industry, which was once composed of hundreds of big and small record labels, is now controlled by just a handful of unregulated, multinational corporations determined to continue their mad rush toward further consolidation and merger. Sony and BMG announced their agreement to merge in November, and EMI and Time Warner may not be far behind. The industry may soon be dominated by only three multinational corporations.

The executives who run these corporations believe that music is solely a commodity. Unlike their predecessors, they fail to recognize that music is as much a vital art form and social barometer as it is a way to make a profit. At one time artists actually developed meaningful, even if strained, relationships with their record labels. This was possible because labels were relatively small and accessible, and they had an incentive to join with the artists in marketing their music. Today such a relationship is practically impossible for most artists.

Henley goes on to make a heartfelt plea about how music downloading hurts artists, and I can’t blame him for that. But let me repeat that from a consumer’s perspective (and in a Postmodern world, that’s the only one that matters), the recording industry’s real issues are price gouging and bad music — both of which are found between the lines of Henley’s commentary.

The Internet has empowered people like no communications medium ever has. Weblogs are the new journalistic voice, and every institution should shudder. There’s an interesting interview with Martin Nisenholtz, CEO, New York Times Digital in today’s MediaDailyNews in which he calls for the establishment of a “professional class” of blogger.

Some people regard the weblog as the first truly native form of Web content creation. And I said that might be true, but that weblogs hadn’t yet created a commercial engine underneath them. I said they were populated by a mostly passionate group of amateurs. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but in order for a medium to take off, it needs to have a group of professionals who are compensated and a business model underneath that can support that professional class.
Nisenholtz — and the majority of institutional types — don’t realize that the energy that makes Weblogging so profound is its anti-professional base. People who have no “right” to be commenting about culture are suddenly influencing far beyond their computer screens, and this is the same energy that’s driving political change and this whole business with the music industry.

Wake up, everybody. It’s a new day, and the (Modernist) status quo is crumbling. As Dylan wrote (and does anybody think he would make it in today’s music business?):

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a‑changin’.

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