"I cannot grow 'till you eat the last of me, oh when will I be free?"
Music is a vibrant form of Art. It can inflict a myriad of emotions, from rage to romance, tranquility to excitement, giddiness to sadness. An intricate part of Humanity, music is not much younger than Mankind, and hence each new sound builds from prior influences.
Some people listen to music half-heartedly, merely enjoying the groove. Others find something deeper, and therefore often feel more passionately about music. This discovery could mean different things to different people, including the respective artists, but each sensation is nonetheless quite real.
“I’m not surprised that people get different meanings out of my songs, but I don’t wanna give the impression that I know what everything means, ‘cause I don’t….There are times when I’m mystified. I look at some of the stuff that comes out, y’know. And like, there it is and it feels right, but I can’t say for sure what it means.”
Music lives and matures, and any attempt to govern its evolution is an assault on Humanity. That said, imagine the temptation to have the ability of dictating the future of music. Controlling the doors of perception, deciding what the Masses get exposed to. Somewhere along the line, the RIAA faced this test, and failed.
Founded in 1952, the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is a trade association representing several hundred companies that create, manufacture, and/or distribute approximately 90% of music that’s played on the radio and sold in stores. The main conglomerates tied up with the RIAA are: Warner Music, Sony Music, Universal Music, BMG, and EMI. Also known as the “Big Five,” these labels are linked to essentially every artery of the entertainment industry, and even have enough power to influence the American government to pass embargos on countries, such as Ukraine. However, it turns out that less than two percent of recording artists are signed by this group. Even so, the RIAA rakes in an estimated $40 billion a year.
With such capital, they rest as the only entities who can afford to take an artist from the street to the Grammys. The RIAA effectively controls promotion throughout the industry, sharing it only with those who fit their mold, and are willing to trade their souls for Fame.
“Having been connected to the genre of hip hop and rap music as an artist for 22 years, I have witnessed the lack of support provided by these record companies to the majority of artists, songwriters, producers, and labels as they seek to reach their fan base…Exposure to the listening public is key to driving sales.”
To make matters worse, the RIAA joined forces with the epitome of Greed: Clear Channel Communications, Inc. The Adolf Hitler of modern Media, this beast controls approximately 1,225 radio stations (as well as 37 television stations) in the United States alone, and 1,376 worldwide. Every day, Clear Channel Radio reaches 54% of all people between the ages of 18-49 in the U.S. In 1997, Clear Channel bought the throne of the global advertising industry, by gobbling up Eller Media Company, More Group Plc., and Universal Outdoor- a direct affiliate of Universal Music. Among other things, this swoop gave Clear Channel more than 776,000 outdoor advertising displays, including billboards, street furniture, and transit panels across the world. The RIAA was now partners with “the world’s leading promoter and marketer of live entertainment,” a despot who brags that “everybody plays a Clear Channel Entertainment stage.”
CD prices slithered from $13 to $17, even though the cost of manufacturing them has declined 66% since the early 80’s. Yes, when CD’s first came out, it cost around $3 to make an album, but now, even with inflation, that price has dropped to less than $1. With the help of Clear Channel, the RIAA now had the ability to not only dictate what music was allowed exposure, but also to justify sucking musicians dry by putting inflated price tags on everything, and manipulating artists into debt for a record deal. And since they would only produce music they felt would make the Top 20, the RIAA not only drained the musicians of their cash, but of their creativity as well, forcing them to only create music that would yield a profit.
“It’s funny, ‘cause what keeps you alive is what kills you. You get too much of the old shit, and Good Night.”
The first real threat to the RIAA came on June 1, 1999, when 19-year-old Shawn Fanning launched a program he’d developed called Napster. His goal was to create a community in which people could be introduced to the wide range of music that is out there, but not offered on MTV or corporate radio. He soon realized that he was not alone in this Quest, for after just a few days, more than 15,000 people had registered to use Napster.
At this point, I’d like to state that I am terribly ignorant to the language of computers. I’ve researched this issue for over a year, and I still cannot explain how a “peer-to-peer network” actually functions. However, my stupidity testifies to the ease in using such programs, as I figured out how to do so within minutes.
It truly was a marvelous landscape. Users could find practically any song that had ever been recorded, be it Leadbelly singing “Irene” at a party in 1939, or a performance with Clutch and Sepultura playing together. Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre were united once again, and Nick Drake had been raised from the dead.
More importantly, by connecting users together directly, the phrase “word of mouth” took on an explosive meaning. Millions of people (Napster peaked around 60 million) could suggest satanstompingcaterpillars to someone who was into DJ Shadow, Flaming Lips, or Guided By Voices. This aspect was obviously appealing to independent musicians, artists who were previously void of outlets to share their Thing with the Masses.
This opened the door to the Future, not only for distribution, but for music as a whole. As Napster was a free service, practically any musician now had the ability to taste exposure, without the ridiculous cost of hiring agents, producers, etc. They no longer had some label trying to mutate their work to fit into the Mainstream. Even established musicians, such Ice-T, The Grateful Dead, Public Enemy, Beck, TLC, Smashing Pumpkins, and a plethora of others, began to format their music to be available online. They now had the opportunity to see what their fans thought of music that they’d created, but didn’t make the grade in their labels’ opinions.
“It’s all about the music”
Sadly, the RIAA had grown comfortable with the luxury that was afforded them at the expense of musicians. They held a powerful dominance over the music industry, and the thought of losing that sustenance was terrifying. So, instead of embracing this advent, the RIAA filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in Northern California against Napster on December 7, 1999. Fanning, who generated minimal income from his program, was faced with charges of copyright infringement, and the RIAA was asking for up to $100,000 per song that traveled through the Napster community.
Just like Paramount Pictures sued Sony when VCR’s hit the market, the RIAA claimed that the music industry would suffer vast losses because of Napster, and pointed to a massive decline in music sales. However, a study conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that this drop in revenue was actually due to the fact that cassettes were no longer being sold, which accounted for a whopping 224.7% drop in total revenue. Other reports have shown that CD sales have increased steadily since 1999. Still, the RIAA was able to tweak these figures in their favor, and convince the Supreme Court to shut down Napster. However, freedom had been tasted, and other similar communities had already popped up everywhere.
One in particular was Audiogalaxy, started by Michael Merhej, and launched to the world in October, 2000. By 2001, Napster was pretty much inoperable, but people quickly found a wonderful alternative, flocking to Audiogalaxy by the millions. Quite similar to its predecessor, Audiogalaxy let users share music, but focused more on the community facet. Forums were designed for all sorts of different interests, and people were constantly encouraged to join in. Instead of one person recommending Neil Young to a fan of Rage Against The Machine, thousands could do so, as well as suggest Bob Dylan and System Of A Down.
“I have lots of friends in bands, and I don’t know of one case where they feel like they’re losing money from music being downloaded off the Internet. I’ve autographed copies of our CD that have obviously been downloaded- they’re in the empty CD case without labels or artwork.”
In light of Napster’s legal assaults, Merhej developed his program to filter out songs recognized to be under copyright. While this wasn’t 100% effective, it shifted the majority of music found in Audiogalaxy to independent artists and more rare finds, such as studio demos and live performances. In doing so, he made an enemy out of one of the most disgusting forms of swine to roam this earth: bootleggers.
Plenty of honest people TRADE music, just like baseball cards and books. I’ll trade for shows dated before I was born, in equal exchange for something from my collection. Although it’s hard to beat the experience of actually sitting in attendance at the Philharmonic Hall in New York on October 31, 1964, I can now at least hear Bob Dylan stutter as Joan Baez joins him on stage. This isn’t something that you can buy at the mall or Target.
Occasionally, gems like these can be found at smaller music shops. Since the majority of profits grossed from these go no further than the register (not to the artists), the decent vendor charges nothing more than the cost of production, which can vary slightly depending on how old the material is, and where it came from. I know several stores where I have found things like Rage Against The Machine’s first official performance, and was asked for only $5 or less.
Then there’s the filthy scum that take advantage of hard-core fans, charging astronomical prices for something that they did not create. For example: I was in Dave’s Music Mine in Pittsburgh (PA) last summer, and found a Neil Young concert that took place just one year prior, less than 30 miles away at the Star Lake Amphitheater. Given the fairly recent occurrence, along with how close the show was to the store, these two discs, 20 songs plus some printer-generated graphics, cost no more than $3 to assemble. To my shock, the price tag read $40.
This type of sinister decadence is not just frowned upon within the society of music trading, it is absolutely not tolerated. These networks consist of people who truly love and cherish music, holding it in a regard far above money. It is this breed that represents the majority of people who congregated on Audiogalaxy, not those greedy peddlers. In fact, it was through Audiogalaxy that I found a person willing to trade the abovementioned concert for something from my stash.
As Napster opened the doors of Exposure for independent musicians, Audiogalaxy kicked those doors off their hinges. It became a haven for artists around the world who had previously been restricted to the Underground, and the amount of new bands making a breakthrough exploded. Audiogalaxy vigorously developed their community aspects, intertwining genres practically into one, and successfully providing an arena that gave musicians the chance they deserved.
“I was exposed to incredible amounts of wonderful, independent music that I never would have otherwise.”
(Kennon Ballou, Audiogalaxy Programmer)
The number of established musicians joining this revolution continued to grow, as they saw this as an opportunity to express themselves in new ways, without some vile parasite holding them back with a contract. At the same time, radio airwaves were quickly losing their diversity, for as Clear Channel gradually swallowed up most of America’s top stations, they syndicated the same music through each one. This made it even more difficult for any musician, as their conventional outlets were drastically fading away.
Once again, the RIAA decided to block music from thriving, and on May 24, 2002, they filed a lawsuit in a New York federal court, citing Michael Merhej and Audiogalaxy for copyright infringement. This time around, the Monster faced little resistance, as Merhej agreed to disable Audiogalaxy, leaving only the forums available. This took affect less than a month after the suit was filed, and this abrupt resolution seemed to be a swift victory for the RIAA.
“To me, the shutting down of Audiogalaxy is a personal blow.”
From a quick glance, it seems like Merhej had simply given up, folding under the pressure of recent memories that promised bankruptcy, the same fate that Napster met. However, by leaving the forums open, Merhej left the core of the Audiogalaxy community intact. While the widespread sharing capabilities may not be available, people can still communicate with each other at a level that was never before possible.
Any person with minimal sense would assume that the RIAA would find a compromise with the likes of Napster, Audiogalaxy, and its newest target, Kazaa. Why not? The latter claims over 100 million users, and even if only half of that were willing to pay a mere $5 a month for the exposure and access that these communities provide, that’s still $250 million a month, or $3 billion a year.
The answer is simple: Greed. As it were, the RIAA had control over how music flourished, but these advancements in technology threatened that hold, providing music with the room to grow. Clear Channel hasn’t even tried to mask their gluttony, taking advantage of the September 11th tragedy to publicize their restrictive program. The day after the World Trade Center was destroyed, Clear Channel released a list of 160 songs (159 individual songs, plus a ban on “all Rage Against The Machine songs”) that their stations shouldn’t play due to “questionable content,” claiming sensitivity for the victims of the terrorist attacks.
The list is somewhat amusing, including love songs by Bruce Springsteen and Dave Matthews Band (“I’m On Fire” and “Crash”), and even a few tracks by the Beatles, such as “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Obla Di, Obla Da.” Now, I am completely against censorship, but how can the theme song for “Life Goes On” be seen as more harmful than “Semi-Charmed Life,” in which Third Eye Blind casually discusses snorting crystal meth? If the argument of relating to the attacks within the lyrics is used, what about the “when the plane came in, she said she was crashing / The velvet, it rips in the city” that was permitted broadcast?
In the meantime, the RIAA continues to rampage, attempting pre-emptive strikes such as pushing bills that would allow them to hack into personal computers suspected of music sharing. Ironically, the day the RIAA went public with its support of such legislation, its website was hacked into, and shut down for several days.
“Burning, ripping, and sharing is not killing music. Greed, stupidity, and ignorance on the part of the policy wonks and further alienating the listener is the real threat to the business, and ultimately the artists’ ability to be heard.”
(Ken Waagner, former member of the Board of Governors for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences)
It’s OK to laugh about these things. It’s OK to laugh at the arrogance of Clear Channel and the RIAA. The truth of this matter is that, despite their apparent triumphs, the RIAA is losing this war. For decades, they have been feeding off of artists, controlling what they do, and sucking them dry. But the damage that pioneers like Napster and Audiogalaxy did to this system has given musicians a new frequency on which they can be heard. It won’t be long before all music is available to enjoy, and the RIAA will soon shrivel up and die.
“It’s coming through the air for all of us to hear. Could it be the sound of liberation, or just the image of detention?
Control my flower; business, news all ready to devour. Who’s in charge and what does he say? Is he playing the alternative, or does it sound the same old way?
We want the airwaves back. We don’t just want airtime- we want all the time all of the time.
What frequency are you getting? Is it noise, or sweet sweet music?
What frequency will liberation be?”