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Brad Kava: Music industry facing a revolution

BY BRAD KAVA
Mercury News

DIGITAL music had its Boston Tea Party last week.

Instead of colonists throwing sacks of precious leaves overboard, the image that will stick in the history books is of a longhaired drummer, who likes to play barefoot, pushing a cart filled with a 60,000-page lawsuit. When Metallica's Lars Ulrich served a suit against Napster, the San Mateo software company that created a program that allows fans to get music online without paying, it marked the beginning of the end of the corporate music world as we know it. As a result of Napster and several other programs, such as Gnutella, you no longer have to pay to own the music you want. It's free. Gratis.

If you have a computer and a CD burner, or your friend does, you can download just about any song or album you want. That's a concept that seemed unfathomable a few years ago, and the implications are still so big that a lot of people can't quite get their minds around what can and should happen next. Distributing copyrighted music without paying for it is, in effect, stealing from the artists -- which is the legal point Ulrich is trying to make. But the fact that he had a list of 335,000 people who downloaded Metallica songs in one weekend pretty much says that the laws are not going to be able to be enforced. Anyone who thinks that making these downloads illegal will change anything has already missed the boat.

Think back to 1983: The record industry sold 770,000 compact discs and 4.4 million records and tapes, and many claimed the CD would not catch on quickly. It wasn't too long before you couldn't find a record or tape if you wanted one. As fast as digital recording spread, digital piracy is spreading 10 times faster.

Shawn Fanning, a 19-year-old computer wiz with a penchant for afternoon naps, accomplished something that musical revolutionaries from Johnny Rotten to Kurt Cobain only talked about. Fanning and his imitators have made corporate music irrelevant.

Why record companies?

As technology progresses and you can conveniently download an exact copy of the music you want, what do record companies have to offer?

That's a question the labels are going to have to answer quickly. They have a little time. For one thing, the bulk of the downloaders are young, but the majority of the record-buying public is over 35 and not as computer savvy. Then there are still problems with downloading and with sound quality. The MP3 format doesn't sound as good as compact disc, so a limited market will want the better sound. But those listening to huge sellers such as DMX or 'N Sync aren't craving subtlety. They have little money and few qualms about pirating the musical ``product.''

You can put some of the blame for their attitudes on greed, both by the record companies and the artists.

When companies introduced the compact disc at $15, roughly three times the cost of a record, they promised the price would drop dramatically when the CD factories were paid off. Discs, after all, cost less than cassette tapes to manufacture. That didn't happen. Some of the blame falls on the artists, who jacked up their own prices as they saw the dollars rolling in. Led by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Madonna and R.E.M., performers were getting hundreds of millions of dollars from the labels. The labels, which over the years had ripped off more than their share of artists, this time simply passed on the expense back to the consumers.

The recording industry's lobbying group, the RIAA, claims that the price of CDs is reasonable because of the costs involved in developing and marketing new bands. If the price had kept up with other costs, a CD would cost $34, it says on its Web site (www.riaa.com). The industry's arrogance has fueled a Robin Hood-like rebellion. Around college campuses, where large servers make for fastest downloads, students think of taking music free as robbing from the rich to help the poor.

So what lies ahead for the industry and artists, who are losing their main source of income?

Some say that if record companies want to survive, they will have to make compact discs cheaper, the way that video makers did. Those first movie videos sold for almost $100, prompting a cottage industry of bootleggers. When the price came down, it became more convenient to buy than to copy.

That works -- but only up to the point. When digital copying becomes more convenient than going to a store, artists and companies are going to have to offer something more. Some fans want the original packaging from CDs, although record companies, cutting costs, have severely cut the artistry that was part of vinyl packaging. Two other models are already working for some visionaries.

Robert Fripp, the founder of the band King Crimson, has set up a subscription service. For $97 a year, he sends fans eight recordings of rare live shows. Then, there is the Grateful Dead jam band model; groups such as Phish make a livelihood more from live performances and T-shirt sales than from selling discs. That's the one favored by Dead lyricist and futurist John Perry Barlow, who says that in a digital age, performers have to give fans something that isn't digital to make money.

Last week's Tina Turner concert certainly illustrated the potential of that model. Turner offered no fewer than 10 shirt types, from $28 to $85. She also sold coffee mugs, vests, baseball caps and a $25 program. Add it to the $90 top ticket price, she made a chunk of change.

Music not a manufactured good

``The music industry is going to have to figure a way to change, the way that railroads changed when people began using cars as their primary means of transportation,'' says Doc Searls, the co-author of a bestseller about the Internet marketplace called ``The Cluetrain Manifesto.'' ``They are going to have to stop treating music as a manufactured good. And if that's the future, I think Metallica looks an awful lot like the past.''

Like everyone else, I'm nervous about this future. But I see plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Taking away major profits from artists and record companies may be a leveler. This is in a sense the fruition of the dream preached 30 years ago by hippies and yippies. Musicians are now going to become their own manufacturers, putting out their projects and figuring a way to distribute them that will make enough money to keep making music. It may keep them more vital.

How many times have you watched pop stars get huge paychecks and not only lose their talent, but their humanity? Michael Jackson is only one example. Few major pop artists' work is as good after the giant paychecks as before. Once they join the billionaires club, their concerns have little meaning to the other 99 percent of us.

Our greatest art has not been the stuff of the mass market, but the current model of making huge stars of musicians depends on mass sales. And reaching the masses is more about how you look than how you sound.

All those artists who claimed that their creativity was spurred by love of their art, not money, may now have a chance to prove it.

The royalties that made musicians into royalty are coming to an end. And that may ultimately, help their art.


Contact Brad Kava at bkava@sjmercury.com or (408) 920-5040. Fax (408) 271-3786.