The Common Good
April 2009

Against the Tide

by Danny Duncan Collum | April 2009

Major record labels haven't adapted to the wired age -- and they're losing.

Back when he was inventing it, Al Gore used to call the World Wide Web “the information superhighway.” Now, a couple of decades into the wired age, that superhighway metaphor has become reality. And, just like any U.S. highway, our information interstate has its share of billboards and potholes, and even road kill.

Among the analog possums and armadillos littering the shoulder of our digital turnpike are such creatures as the daily print newspaper and the record company. Well, they aren’t exactly dead yet. But they’ve both been hit, they’re bleeding, and the turkey vultures are swarming close.

Of course, there is a difference between the newspaper and the record company. Some of us old guys will miss the daily paper. But when the last record company heaves its death rattle, the whole world will say “good riddance.”

What the newspapers have is a cash-flow problem. They embraced the Internet enthusiastically in 1994, and their rapidly evolving Web sites provide a perfectly adequate vehicle for continuing the practice of independent journalism. The problem is that the public resists paying for online content, and Internet advertising is still far less lucrative than its print equivalent. In addition, the papers still drag the dead weight of all those 20th-century printing presses and delivery trucks.

THE RECORD COMPANIES have much bigger problems. From the beginning, they approached the digital world with actions that seemed as imperious as those of the legendary King Canute, who ordered the tide of the ocean to stop rising. As Rolling Stone contributing editor Steve Knopper details in his new book, Appetite for Self-Destruction, the record companies first seized upon the invention of the CD as an opportunity to double prices, even though the product was actually cheaper to produce. Next they tried to ban the first digital copying device (digital audio tape). Then, when file-sharing technology appeared, rather than reaching an accommodation that would turn it into a new and everlasting revenue stream, the companies sued Napster and tried to strangle music downloading in its cradle.

Napster lost that lawsuit, but file-sharing continued, so the record companies hit upon the brilliant strategy of suing their customers. Suddenly college students and lots of other regular folks found themselves hit with five- or six-figure damage claims for digital copyright violation. That was such a great idea that the record com­pan­ies also decided to booby-trap their own products with anti-piracy computer codes.

But the tide has kept coming and Their Highnesses are drowning. Last year the top-selling album (by rapper Lil Wayne) sold only 3 million copies, an all-time low. Ten years ago, top albums regularly sold 10 times that, and more. That’s a picture of an industry taking on water. Knopper predicts that within a few years only two record companies will survive, and they will exist mainly to manage the ever-popular back catalog of such perennials as The Beatles and Frank Sinatra.

While the record companies have been attacking their customers, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), the licensing agencies that collect songwriters’ copyright fees, have been attacking the next generation of pop music artists. According to a January story in The Christian Science Monitor, the copyright police have been shaking down coffeehouses that host open-mike nights on the odd chance that some future Dylan might be strumming a cover of “Blowin’ in the Wind” and collecting spare change in a basket by the stage. According to the Monitor, one San Francisco coffeehouse was charged $6,000 per year in licensing fees before it finally shut down the open mike.

America’s musical heritage is the envy and inspiration of the world. The descendants of slaves, servants, and immigrants have together created art that reflects the best of American culture—its striving toward freedom and equality and its faith in the genius of ordinary people. In recent decades that heritage has been under the stewardship of the major record companies, and they have squandered it. American music will find a way to reinvent itself without them.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State Uni­versity in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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