Sunday, March 2, 2008

Clear Channel vs Napster: What's the Real Reason For the Copyright War?

I remember two formative events, spaced a couple of years apart, that have forever since colored my feelings about music.

The first was when I was 16 or 17, a school-day like any other which started with me getting on the school bus. Now, we had a cool bus driver, who let the kids choose the radio station we listened to as we all got carted off to the local indoctrination facility. There was none of this nonsense about making the kids listen to crappy country and western music, like the heartless sadists that chauffeured some of my friends. Bill was not like them. He was good people.

There was never any question of what we wanted to listen to. This was out in the sticks, and there weren't many radio stations. There was only one, in fact, that played the kind of music that we wanted to hear, a station broadcasting from across the border called Z-Rock that put out a lineup of all the great alternative music out there in the 90s: Nirvana, Marilyn Manson, the Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, White Zombie, the Stone Temple Pilots; this was the character of the sound track that accompanied us on the way to the lockup.

That fateful day, I got on that bus and found myself listening to Britney Spears. Surely, I felt, this must be some sort of mistake. This saccharine pop was the kind of 'music' that clueless 13 year old girls listened to, not the socially aware hard rock that stirred the hearts of post-pubescent teens. "What the hell is this?" I said. "Change it back to 106.7"

"This is 106.7", the bus driver said, apologetically. "But it's not Z-Rock."

That was my first encounter with Clear Channel Communications, though it was not for years afterwards that I found out it was they who had eaten the only live link I had to new music. Sure, there was still the classic rock station coming down from the north, and they played some good stuff. But it wasn't the same.

Fast-forward a couple of years. Now I'm 19, in university, with a computer, an internet connection, and thus - a couple of months into my first year - Napster. After so long without a ready way of discovering and listening to new music, I jumped like a starved pig into a bathtub filled with lasagna; I damn near filled my hard-drive within a month or two, grabbing every track I could. Napster was like some glorious gift from the internet gods, a way to discover and listen to music without having to either pay for it, or wait for it to be served up to you. It combined everything that was great about radio with everything that was great about a store.

A year later, when it was torn down due to copyright violations, I vented to all around me my towering rage against the short-sighted and petty stupidity of the RIAA. It echoes on to this day ... though I'm no longer sure that stupidity is the whole reason Napster was taken down. Oh, stupidity plays a part, of that there can be no doubt; entrenched interests of every industry have historically been jealous of their perceived rights, and fail to perceive the obvious society-level benefits of new technologies that threaten their small domains. This time around, there is no doubt a great deal of the blame for the past several years of legal battles and bad legislation can be laid at the feet of record company executives caught blinking and unprepared in the harsh headlights of the approaching singularity.

Well, it explains a great deal - enough that out of disgust I've long since vowed never to buy CDs, unless it's at the show and directly from the artist - but it doesn't explain it all the way.

Think on this, those of you who used Napster (a lot, I expect). The crackdown on the network was justified due to the 'theft' of songs by stars like Metallica and Madonna, high-performing market-saturating money whores to the record industry. But how often did you, yourself, bother downloading tracks by them? You likely already owned them, anyways, and even if you didn't all you had to do to hear them was turn on the radio. Songs like that were everywhere. No, I'm willing to bet you used the network to find the long-tail stuff: DJ mix tapes, jam band recordings, grateful dead bootlegs, live recordings of obscure Scandinavian death metal bands doing the sort of heinous things on stage they have become the stuff of terrible eldritch myth. The things you couldn't find anywhere else, save by accessing a network where you could trade music with tens of millions of others. Stuff you couldn't buy if you wanted to, because stores didn't carry it.

Music like that likely accounted for a majority of the traffic on the network. To be honest I don't know for sure, but an informal and very unscientific poll of my friends and acquaintances has so far revealed no one who mostly, or even really at all, searched for big label music. So I don't think monetary losses due to copyright infringement are the whole reason Napster was attacked.

No, it was realized that corporate control over music was threatened, and steps were taken to deal with that threat.

By the time Napster came along, the music industry was dominated by a handful of companies: marketing was handled by MTV and Clear Channel, distribution by the major labels, access to live shows by Ticketmaster. You notice what happened as Clear Channel sewed up the radio market? Suddenly you couldn't hear decent music anywhere. Where once the airwaves had been full of wild rock music and sullen gangsta rap, music that spoke (and often screamed) from the heart about problems in society that cried out for solution ... now, there was the candy-land fantasy of pop music, where no problems were more pressing than being jilted in love or unable to find anything to watch on your expensive big-screen TV. Were we suddenly to believe that the musical tastes of a whole nation had changed as though overnight, that a country full of individualists had suddenly decided they preferred sugary pop tunes to real music?

Well, hell, that's what I thought. That's what almost everyone seemed to think, and joke about in a bitchy sort of way. Funny thing, though. As popular as pop music apparently was, I almost never encountered anyone who liked it. Quite the opposite: most anyone I met, regardless of whether we liked the same music, loathed pop.

So Clear Channel takes over the radio stations, and suddenly it's all pop, all the time. People hate it, but it's what's on the radio or on the TV, so a lot of them grit their teeth and listen to it. The marketing psychology boys no doubt predicted that, with total control over radio and TV, the tastes of an entire nation could be very effectively molded: if all they hear is pop music, then before long they'll be humming it to themselves without realizing it, and eventually deciding they rather like it, and buying it and listening to it all the time. This has other benefits beyond simply profits: if the majority of the population is listening to canned, manufactured music, their mental states can be very effectively manipulated.

Music isn't just a commodity that you buy. It's an art that shapes the subconscious background of your life, exerting a subtle but powerful influence over your mental state. Anyone who loves music knows this, because that power is why you love it. It hijacks your auditory cortex and reprograms your brain, and that can be a lot of fun. Or it can be a powerful tool for altering your consciousness: calming you, consoling you, pumping you up, helping you work things out.

Or, if someone gains total control over the music you listen to, a powerful lever of control. The music, after all, carries a message, one that bypasses reason and speaks directly to the emotions. They - the They that comes with a capital (because They have so much capital) - came very close to gaining control over that weapon. If it hadn't been for Napster (and the fragmented offspring that sprung up in it's shadow), They would have succeeded. They would have convinced an entire nation that the music it liked best - and by extension the mental state they most often occupied - was as superficial as a mannequin, devoid of emotional or intellectual depth, devoted only to the maintenance of a smiling and unthinking optimism. Musical prozac for the depressed national soul; you can't help but wonder whether it'd be as toxic as the real thing.

They've tried anyways, and met with limited success. The labels converted into producing as much pop as they could, and the product was pushed aggressively on the airwaves. Much of the population, rarely venturing beyond the noob sea of the internet that is MSN and Yahoo and AOL, never got the hang of the whole file sharing thing, were admonished that it was illegal and dangerous, and were thus kept as a captive audience to seduce (those who didn't simply turn off the radio altogether and just stick to their CD collections).

Peer-to-peer distribution networks, however, have done much to undermine the corporate control of the musical landscape. Virtually no one under 30 pays much attention at all to what's on the radio. We find new music with MySpace and HypeMachine and Google, and we acquire virtually all of it over file-trading networks. We're barely aware of the soundtrack that's been written for our lives, and as a result we're not marching in neat ranks like we should be. Instead we're dancing in the streets, grinning like fools, and cheerfully flipping them off whenever they glower at us. Frankly, it is both unseemly and unsettling to Them, and so is it any wonder that They will not hear reason on the subject?

The success of file-sharing has been up until now a largely victorious front in the on-going shadow war against Them, undermining a small but significant part of their plan. The damage it inflicts isn't just monetary - though that alone makes it a powerful weapon of resistance - it's also psychological, even spiritual. It attacks Their very reason for being, for it shows that with the internet, we can make Them as unnecessary and irrelevant as They plan to make us.

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Anonymous said...

there's more to this story. the people who lose out are the artist, publishers, producers, songwriters, studio musicians, the band, road crew, agents, business managers. no money for tours, stage hands, studio costs, foreign money can't be collected, live, radio and tv isn't collected. getting 'free' songs' is theft. these people offer their creativity and should be paid for it. they have many people dependent on them and they deserve every penny they make. but the record companies - well artists have wised up, they have bus. managers, attorneys and managers who are 'hep' to the crookedness of the record labels and learn how to negotiate. unfortunately they pay a premium for the materials to package recordings...but, they still have crooked insiders who use payola and threats to play their songs. it is a monopoly. radio people aren't much better.
but don't forget the artist, writers etc. should not be punished for this by giving anyone their time and talents.

Ketousama said...

Artists make most of their money from performing. This has always been the nature of the profession, from remote antiquity up to the present, with perhaps a very brief period in the latter half of the 20th century in which the very top of pile made more money from album sales.

It's no more theft to download songs than it is to take a book out of the library. That you can't keep a library book doesn't make a difference: few re-read books (and if you want, you can always check it out again.) File-sharing networks, like the internet as a whole, are nothing more than the apotheosis of the public library. The attempt to outlaw them is not a defense of artists, it is an attack against the dissemination of information, an attempt to control culture.