By Jeff Price
In the 80’s when I was in high school, smoked clove cigarettes and looked like a bad reproduction of Robert Smith, musicians were larger than life. They were a persona, a style, a representation of what I was and how I wanted people to see me. I connected with them and they represented me.
I would spend hours listening to 7” singles and cassettes, reading fanzines, scouring the shelves of a record store to discover that next artist that might mean something to me and, as importantly, that no one else knew. The more obscure, self-released or “indie” the artist or label the better.
And the RIAA agreed. Music was special and the artists that created it were valued. Thou shalt covet the musician and fan. And the enemy? VHS movies and video games vying for my money and attention. The RIAA embarked on a campaign to frame music, and the artists that created it, as more important and of a higher cultural value then these other newcomers. I remember buying The English Beat’s “Special Beat Service” vinyl album with a big circular sticker on it stating in all caps, “Music, More Value for Your Money”. And I actually agreed with the RIAA. The VHS of Buckaroo Bonzai and the new Mario Bros. Nintendo game cartridge would come and go, but the song “I Confess” would forever hold a place in my heart.
The lines were drawn. The RIAA worked hard, even spent money to define music, artists and their fans as belonging to a higher cultural status that had more value than those of movies and video games.
More competition showed up for my “entertainment dollars” until new technology shifted the enemy from those competing with the music industry to those stealing from it. The problem got much larger than the episode of What’s Happening!! when Rerun is at the Doobie Brothers concert with a tape recorder under his jacket (forward to 3:30 to re-live the stinging moment). Cassette recordings of albums were being mass produced and handed out or sold, CD burners chugged out crappy illegal copies of albums, smaller handheld recording devices allowed live shows to be more easily recorded and bootlegged. The enemy changed and grew in numbers.
Along came the Internet and MP3 compression technology as well as a new breed of technogeeks converting the huge song files on CDs to smaller ones and sending them around via the Internet. As net access via dial-up morphed to DSL and cable, the 25 minutes it used to take to download just one song changed to just minutes (or faster). Hard drives got bigger, computer sound cards and speakers improved, broadband net access became cheaper; it began to swirl out of control. Then Napster arrived: the first peer to peer filing, with the ability to scale in an unprecedented way allowing tens of millions of people to get their hands on music at the (double) click of a button. It quickly became the music industry’s public enemy number one.
And Napster was the event that triggered some in the industry to slowly lose their minds and creep towards insanity. Some in the industry began to move their cross hairs from Napster to ISP services and they kept going, looking to find someone, something (or anyone) to blame for the looming changes in control and revenue. Publicly and privately the industry attacked just about everything – retail stores, radio, press, the internet, computers, MTV, YouTube, MP3.com, instant messaging, CD burners, eMusic, Soundscan, independent promoters, all technology, but they could not slow it down. New enemies had to be found. Reason flew out the window and they went after the very thing that kept them alive, the music fan.
The RIAA, with the backing of its label members, started suing the very people that paid their salaries and made them money. Get grandma, get the high school student, get the college kids, take them all down. Sue them, scare them, serve them up legal notices, force them to settle in the hope that a message would go out to the world and stop their behavior. Use fear and intimidation to get the genie back in the bottle. Don’t bother to explain copyright or the value of it, scare the crap out of them.
But this too did not work. The shift accelerated. Someone must be blamed. This MUST be someone else’s fault – panic ensued.
Public service announcements were launched featuring major label artists stating that downloading music via peer to peer services was stealing, but there was no real educational campaign embarked on to truly, honestly explain the situation. Where was the new campaign of “Music, More Value for the Money”, the “Music is Special”, the “We love our Music Fans”, the, “Wow This is Awesome, There are More and More People Listening to Music Now so Lets Figure Out How to Take Advantage of This Great Opportunity” campaigns?
The industry started to crumble faster as the media and distribution outlets opened to everyone:
eMusic launched creating the first on-line digital music store with unlimited shelf space and inventory.
MySpace took off, every band, signed or not, could now have a fan webpage.
YouTube exploded, anyone could now make a music video and let potentially tens of millions of people see it.
iTunes launched, the iPod came out and music fans loved it. Everything could be available to buy and would never be out of stock.
TuneCore launched, every musician now had access to have his or her music distributed and be on the shelf to be bought.
And some in the old school industry lost their minds, completely. They searched for new people or companies to attack, but they had already blamed them all. With no targets left, in a last moment of desperation, these few weary disillusioned out-of-touch with reality souls attacked the only thing that was left, the artist. The very creators of the music, who were needed to fuel the machine they built, became the problem.
The artist was now the enemy.
In their minds, it was these other artists’ fault that the music they wanted to sell was not selling. These other artists just made too much music, and all this music confuses people, makes music fans not like music, makes them throw their hands up in the air and say, “There is just too much choice, I need someone else to tell me what I like. I can’t deal with other people suggesting bands and songs to me that are not working for record labels or radio stations.”
Sitting board members of the RIAA, A2IM and SoundExchange went on campaigns and made public statements to the press that “these” artists, these evil bad artists, were to blame! It was these non-sanctioned artists hurting album sales and revenue for the labels. They are the reason why the music industry is failing. We did not let them in, but here they are making and recording music. These artists are “crap”. These artists “clutter” the world with their non-sanctioned, non-approved songs. These artists are not “developed” and are failing, taking us all down with them. Through their magical ways, these artists stop the sales of “good” music. The problem is THESE artists. They have to be stopped. We must force them all back into the old model where the RIAA member record labels get to decide who gets to put music on the shelves of iTunes, Amazon and other stores.
To make matters worse, these “crap” musicians actually record music without first checking with us. It’s bad enough it’s on their own hard drives, how dare they put it on Apple’s to be found or bought if searched for. Radiohead, Justin Bieber, Arcade Fire, Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, The Black Eyes Peas, Jay-Z are being hurt by these “other” artists having their music available for people to buy on iTunes. And whose idea was it in the first place to let them have a MySpace or Facebook page or upload a video to YouTube! Berklee School of Music, how dare you teach these artists anything without first getting our approval to let them in.
A last desperate witch-hunt started. Some other old guard industry professionals started hammering in on these foul, evil, who-the-hell-do-you-think-you-are artists – it’s your fault! You are now the enemy. It bubbled up and became a drumbeat to the point where other musicians in legendary bands even began to echo the sentiment.
You’re all crap. You are the problem.
Instead of embracing this new world – a world where more music is being created, distributed, bought, sold, shared and listened to by more people and more musicians than at any point in history – the RIAA, A2IM, SoundExchange complacently sit silent as their board members, and in one last desperate attempt, attack the creators of music.
But it did not work. 2010 was the year of the artist with more artists selling more music now than at any point in history. And now as these few old school guard sit and ramble insanely about how music is killing music, after they have attacked and blamed everything and everyone for the shift in power and loss of control, there is only one more thing left for them to blame…themselves.