Universal Music CEO’s rant is more of the same

I grew up in the late 50s and early 60s, when the pop music industry was beginning to explode. I’m happy to have been around then, because it puts a lot of the current crap involving the industry and its customers into perspective.

The latest b.s. is from Universal Music Group CEO Doug Morris, who said in a Merrill Lynch investors’ conference speech on Tuesday that social media sites like YouTube and MySpace are “copyright infringers,” owe Universal “tens of millions of dollars” and will be dealt with shortly. Really, Mr. Morris, are you serious?

I could go on and on about this, but you’d get bored, so here are just a couple of points.

Doug Ruskoff’s wonderful concept that the internet isn’t so much a media or technological phenomenon as it is a social phenomenon is what takes me back to my formative years. When I was a teenager, most kids bought 45s, the records that had a hit on one side and an accompanying tune on the flip side. In the beginning, both songs were usually worth playing, but then record companies started putting the worst cuts on the flip side, because they wanted to encourage people to buy other records and because the way consumers used the music made putting a worthy tune on the flip side a waste of resources. Music in my day was all about individual cuts. Very, very few people played albums at parties. It was all about stacking the hits, literally, on a record player. Nobody I knew turned the stack over to play the non-hits.

This changed, of course, when the drug culture brought about 17-minute psychodelic cuts on albums, and then who gave a crap about hits? But I digress…

When we visited friends or they came to us, we’d play those records in the background. If you had a new record, you’d carry it with you, so your friends could listen. We made our own radio stations this way, and pop music became the soundtrack for our lives. “Hey, Billy, bring your records to the party.” A lot of kids had little carrying cases with which to haul around their collections.

When recordable cassettes came on the scene, we naturally shared cuts with friends that way. It was no conspiracy to rob artists of their riches (a red herring, by the way, because it’s the record companies — not the artists and writers — who are most impacted by the personal media revolution).

Fast forward to MySpace, the new friend’s room where kids hang out. In the most basic of realities, the kids are doing the same things with music that they used to do in my day, using it to create a soundtrack for their lives. And here’s the thing I find most silly about all the fuss: would the record companies and artists of my day even thought for a moment to invade the homes of customers and stop them from playing their records on somebody else’s record player? Of course not. When you bought the tune, it was yours, not the record company’s. You didn’t buy the “right” to listen to it. Geez Louise!

While the music industry today needs this to be a legal issue, music lovers are looking at each other in amazement, because it raises the most basic of social questions involving the arts. Is art created to be consumed or purchased? Do artists create to have their work seen or heard or to get paid? You can say “both,” if you wish, but the motivation that comes first determines its social place and yanks aside the curtain that obscures the wizard of the music BUSINESS.

I recall that wonderful line from The Agony and the Ecstasy in the basement room where Michelangelo and his fellow artists are complaining about always being poor. “We’re artists,” one man announced. “We’ll always be slaves to another man’s nickel.” The whole book/film is about Michelangelo’s struggle with Rome over painting the Sistine Chapel and it beautifully captures the artists’ spirit, that to finish the work and to fully express that which is inside is creative man’s ultimate goal. It certainly isn’t about carving out a nice life for yourself in so doing. This is why the artists of old were venerated within the community and how genius was able to flourish. Life could be very rough, but that wasn’t the point.

I know that people find my position rigid and uncaring about the people who make and sell music, but here’s the second point I wish to make (again) about contemporary music. What the whole industry refuses to address is that most of it plain stinks. It’s boring, predictable, and stale, and the industry systems place a premium on hit-making, not individual creativity. Just like book publishing, the industry is based on who can sell the most, and this is contrary to the history, traditions and motivations of art.

Expression and the freedom to express; that’s what it’s all about, exactly what the kids are doing with MySpace and YouTube.

I agree with Rafat Ali at PaidContent.org. Mr. Morris, this one will come back to haunt you.

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