Friday, October 26, 2007


A) So Madonna has signed a big-dough deal with the concert promoter Live Nation, that supposedly encompasses all of her show-biz biz. Some newspaper in Chicago reported this under the headline “New Madonna Deal About More than Music.” Which raises the question: when has any Madonna deal ever been about music? When has Madonna herself ever been about music, even when whatever it was she was having other people make for her in recording studios was treated, occasionally, as music?

B) The media’s treatment of the disaster in San Diego has been predictably dismal. Monday night, CNN’s Anderson Cooper came the closest to actually covering the disaster, although he spent as much time shilling his global warming special as he did describing the accelerating, out of control, matrix of fires. (“Many believe these fires are the result of global climate changes. Starting tomorrow we’ll be looking at that......”) CNN’s Nancy Grace spent her hour raving about some infant skeleton found in a shoebox in somebody’s attic. Also on CNN, neocon doofus Glenn Beck was trying to explain what he meant when he said that a lot of people who hate America were losing their homes from the fires. CNN still believes that it should compete with Fox by having this utter moron on the air. Disgusting. Meantime, while the Santa Ana winds were wiping out entire neighborhoods just North of San Diego, MSNBC was showing yet another installment of it’s Predator series, you know, where they entrap perverts to show up in a suburban house with an online promise of a tryst with a teenager? This show has long stopped being a cautionary tale for parents of teenagers. It’s a lascivious game show with no winners.

As my brother lives in the line of the fires just north of San Diego, I was particularly keen to know what was going on. I found the local NPR outlet, KPBS, doing a fabulous job, staying live and reporting 24/7 over a stream on the web. Incredibly, KPBS’s transmitter was burned up, knocking it off the air, until a classic rock station lent KPBS its frequency. Not only was the broadcasting incredibly thorough, but the station posted an interactive google map that was packed with up-to-date information about fire lines, closed roads, and evacuation centers. Also, the station had an up-to-the-second mini-blog, courtesy of the blogging site Twitter, where announcements were posted. It worked great. Occasionally, amid the growing disaster, a glimmer of hilarity would come through, like the reporter who was complaining that a lot of the downtown Starbucks were closed (there was some question as to whether the stores had temporarily relocated to serve free coffee at the evacuation centers), and the dude who called up asking the anchors for a surf report. He was told to wear a face mask while surfing, as the dense smoke was blowing straight out to sea.

C) Three out of four major labels announced their latest gambit to beat up Apple, and, oh yeah, and to combat piracy, too. It’s not final yet, not even close, but it’s gonna be called TotalMusic. The deal is you’ll be able to buy a special digital music player (most definitely not the iPod, but one of the pretenders) that will allow you to download an unlimited number of songs. Forever. The mark-up on the music player will be about $90, based on a $5 per month subscription over an estimated average device life of 18 months. The labels will likely partner with a telephone company for the download logistics.

This too will fail, if it ever, in fact, gets off the ground (anybody remember the Strategic Digital Music Initiative?). First, the labels will restrict the music with so much DRM that no sane person will be interested in owning it. I doubt that be they music will be downloadable off the device, so forget about backing up, burning disks, or any multi-platform use of your music. In other words, it won’t really be your music. Second, it’ll be marketed badly, and will never grab the iPod’s cache, even if it’s a bargain. Apple not only sells the cool devices, it does so in a cool way, like by making Feist’s “1234” a bona-fide hit by using it in an advertisement. The TotalMusic thing, if it comes to pass, will be forced on us with bad commercials and phony “grass-roots” viral internet campaigns. And all those media literacy classes our kids have taken will pay off, with interest. We’ll all just walk away.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


This article originally appeared in the 10.11.07 issue of Metroland.

Well. The first music file-sharing case has come and gone. A 30-year old single Mom in Duluth was found guilty of copyright infringement for having 25 songs on her hard drive and was assessed damages of $220,000. The woman claims steadfastly that she didn’t do it. And the case is interesting in all sorts of ways.

For example, if she had taken, say, 25 double cheeseburgers from McDonalds (which carry the same $.99 price tag), do you think she’d be holding the bag for over 200 grand? The jury that hung the lady included five people who owned MP3 players and several who didn’t own computers and had never been on the internet.

The RIAA trotted in a number of experts and recording industry executives to make their case. Sony counsel and witness Jennifer Pariser testified that she had personally “seen” thousands of Sony employees lose their jobs because of piracy. Imagine! I wonder how many Sony employees she has seen lose their jobs because Sony put spyware in its CDs, or because Sony price-fixed the prices of its CDs with other labels, or because Sony was deeply involved in a radio payola scandal, or because people avoid buying Sony products because Sony has this pernicious habit of suing its own customers, or because Sony, like the rest of the major labels, has pretty much stopped developing artists and instead drops an endless supply of dreck on us, for example, don’tmakemesayhernameOKIwill, Britney Spears??? Just askin’! Pariser also played for the jury an “authentic recording” of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin” along with an illegally downloaded version of the same song, while swaying back and forth to the groovy Journey beat!

The judge denied the RIAA’s bid to put its chief counsel Cary Sherman on the stand, saying he wouldn’t contribute any relevant information. Must have been a long, lonely plane ride home from Duluth. To counter the RIAA’s inference that the defendant had ditched her hard drive to rid herself of incriminating evidence, the defense put on the stand a card-carrying member of Best Buy’s Geek Squad, in uniform, to testify that he’d replaced the hard drive a couple of years ago because it was really broken. And finally, the morning of closing arguments, the judge changed his charge to the jury, and told them that simply making music available for others to download was copyright infringement, even if no actual distribution of any music had in fact taken place. This is a fine point, but a crucial one, because the RIAA doesn’t catch people in the act of downloading or uploading. It only catches computers at IP addresses with music available for download. And the issue of whether that is infringement is far from settled.

In the end, the absurdity of the verdict resulted in more bad PR for the labels, more talk about the labels’ methods and the absurdity of the current copyright law, and a bunch of sympathy for a lady in Duluth, who is viewed very much as a victim. And she’s appealing.

Meantime, Radiohead announced early last week that it was releasing its new album In Rainbows itself, on its website, on October 10th. And you can pay what you want for it. That’s right. If you want to download it for free, you can do that. But watch what’s going to happen. Radiohead’s gonna make a fortune. Betcha a nickel.

Payment by tip-jar has been suggested by anti-copyright activists for years, and derided by the industry as pie-in-the-sky idealistic hooey. But for certain artists, it’ll work fine. Better than fine. Jane Siberry, the wonderful Canadian singer so acceptably eccentric that she changed her name to Issa and no one thought it strange, has had her music up for download with tip jar payment for a couple of years. At the moment, she’s averaging $1.18 per download in voluntary payments. $.19 more per song than people would pay at iTunes.

And if Radiohead were still on a major label (their deal ran out a couple years ago), a download would probably fetch them around $.15 a song, once the label and online vendor took their cuts from the $.99 price. So, doing the math, they will be coming out better by selling directly if they get paid anything over $1.50 or so for the complete album. And they will get a lot more than that.

What’s it mean? It means that the bigger an artist is, and especially the more that an artist has a loyal following, a following that feels a personal connection, the more irrelevant a record label becomes. It won’t work for everybody, but if Radiohead does well, and they will, expect their model to be followed by lots of others, as soon as they can shake the shackles of their big-label deals.

Leaving the labels with nothing to do but peddle tripe to teenagers and sue single moms.