Wedneday: 08/07/02

The Bleat Goes On
All across the Internet, weblogs and webzines are alive with the sound of disaffected music fans.

Glenn Reynolds is yodeling defiantly about "record companies [that] have been assaulting music-sharing systems so vigorously" simply to maintain "their stranglehold on promotion and distribution."

Janis Ian is warbling softly about the RIAA, the American Dream, and "a general strike" against the music industry: "Just one week of people refusing to play the radio, buy product, or support our industry in any way would flex muscles they have no idea are out there…"

Doc Searls is singing the blues about the premature death of Internet radio and an absence of "low-friction" ways to financially support radio stations that aren't in the business of selling consumers to advertisers.

As indefatigable as a super-elite squadron of boy-band members, such critics belt out their grievances with great style and enthusiasm -- and still the greedy record industry refuses to listen to them!

For years now, music fans have complained that commercial radio sucks.

For years now, music fans have railed against $18.98 CDs that contain one good track and 14 lousy ones.

For years now, music fans have been terrorized and persecuted by RIAA henchmen who insist that previewing new music via MP3 file-sharing is the most malignant form of piracy ever devised.

And how has the music industry responded?

With pointless copy-protection schemes and endless litigation.

Its latest affront to fans? Comprehensive, low-priced digital music services like,'s Rhapsody, and the RealOne MusicPass.

Janis Ian, Glenn Reynolds, and Doc Searls are apparently too smart to be taken in by the sleazy, Big Entertainment schemers behind these ventures, because they seem to be ignoring them altogether.

Me, I'm not so smart. Instead of immediately recognizing these services for the scam they are, I decided to sign up for two of them, and Rhapsody.

If you're not familiar with them, these services basically offer unlimited on-demand streaming for a monthly subscription fee. Rhapsody has a catalog of 193,000 songs from approximately 6000 artists. I couldn't find specific numbers for it doesn't seem as if its catalog is quite as extensive.

In essence, they're both first-generation incarnations of the long-anticipated celestial jukebox: a huge repository of songs that you can play on demand, in any order you like, with none of the rules that Internet radio stations have to observe in order to qualify for a compulsory license. You can play whole albums, you can play the same song over and over, you can create playlist archives, etc.

Theoretically, this is a music fan's dream. In practice, however, these services are just more evidence of the music industry's deep, unrelenting, near-psychotic contempt for its customers.

First of all, there's the price: Both charge $9.95 a month for the basic service, which may seem reasonable at first, but look at how it works out. If a typical song is 3 minutes long, and you listen to this service two hours a day, that's 1200 songs, or almost a penny a song-listen! When the fuck are those greedy music-industry bastards going to acknowledge that digital distribution eliminates old-economy costs like packaging, shipping, and radio industry payola, and that prices must drop accordingly? What would a fair price for digital music be? How about zero cents per song-listen, assholes? How about you give the fans (the people who are responsible for your luxurious lifestyles in the first place) money for listening to songs, or at least free MP3 players?

Almost as annoying as the ridiculously high prices of these services is the terrible "selection" of artists they offer. While Rhapsody may have over 190,000 songs to choose from, they're all from artists who are so obscure you won't even find them on Frank Sinatra? Jeez, isn't that guy dead? Bruce Springsteen - wasn't he that one-hit wonder with the Reagan campaign song back in the '80s? R.E.M., U2, Eminem, Jay-Z, Britney Spears, Pavement, Cat Power, Herbaliser, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Portishead, Modest Mouse, Scorpions, DJ Spooky, Tenacious D, Wilco, Weezer, Alison Krauss, Diana Krall -- where's the variety? Where's the genuinely established acts? Where's the hot new talent?

Since 99% of this dreck isn't even worth listening to one time, it's not that big a deal that these services favor more proprietary delivery mechanisms than the more portable, easier-to-copy MP3 format. But, honestly, when is the music industry going to realize most music fans who trade unauthorized MP3s just want to sample new music before buying CDs? And if you're going to sample new music, that doesn't mean you listen to it once, or twice, or three hundred times, with a music-industry goon looming over your shoulder. To truly preview new tracks, you need to burn them to CD. You need to take them with you to the beach. You need to spend some commute-time with them. You need to share them with a thousand friends or so, to see what they think. Buying a CD is like getting married: it can take years of evaluation to really know whether or not you like a song enough to commit to it.

Fourth, what about the artists, man? The truth is fans are perfectly willing to pay artists. And as soon as the artists buy back their material from the various entitities they've sold it to and disaggregate the buying experience, making it possible for fans to laboriously support their favorite bands one costly, time-consuming transaction at a time, the revenue will start to flow…

In the meantime, no one's getting fooled by these new services, which ultimately are just desperate, last-ditch efforts by the music industry to retain its lucrative monopoly over joy, freedom, and Barry Manilow songs. Don't they realize things have changed? Don't they realize, as Glenn Reynolds points out in his latest piece, that artists like "Salsoul goddess Cecilia Noel" can now earn thousands of dollars bypassing Big Entertainment monopolists like Vivendi Universal to take advantage of non-music-industry initiatives like Vivendi Universal's Don't they realize that fans are tired of greedy ploys like unlimited downloads for ten bucks a month?

Janis Ian suggests that fans stop buying music for one week to communicate their displeasure with the industry, but millions of fans have already been "striking" in such manner for a good five years now, and look what it's accomplished: nothing. Ian is probably too gentle and kind-hearted to express such things, but, frankly, the time for appeasement is over. The music industry needs to be humiliated. It needs to be vanquished violently and painfully and thoroughly, so that it finally understands that medieval Islam and strongman dictatorships are bankrupt. Oh, wait, that's Iraq that believes in medieval Islam and strongman dictatorships. But isn't the music industry the Iraq of the entertainment world, always treating its most avid consumers with contempt, always trying to squash the competition? I say start the bombing now!

-- G. Beato

Cooking With Bigfoot

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