Repetitions on the culture industry

By James Liu

Certain recent developments in the music industry have brought me not the least bit of consternation. First, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has become quite a bit more vigilant about what they take to be “piracy.” The second is iTunes, a new proprietary music service by Apple.

As anyone with any knowledge about the music industry knows, the real intellectual property pirates are the music labels themselves. First, they underpay all but the biggest superstars. All of the “advances” paid to smaller acts are “refundable;” that is, they can be taken back by the music label for costs associated with production and marketing, the end result being that the artists get to keep next to nothing. In other words, unless you are the Backstreet Boys, Shakira, or Eve, you produce music, and the labels take it from you and give you nothing. Eve is reported to have said that she works hard to create her music, and that fans shouldn’t “steal” from her. This is as if to say that the musicians who are on the label who get next to nothing for their efforts don’t work as hard, and that the disgraceful way the labels treat them isn’t also a form of stealing.

There are also good, systemic reasons that record sales have been in a slump, and it has nothing to do with peer to peer music sharing. (In the heyday of Napster, music sales were actually up, so sharing cannot be the only reason record sales are down.) The record industry is only interested in developing the biggest megastars. This is made easier by the RIAA’s close connections to Clear Channel communications, which owns the lion’s share of the radio business, and who have virtually a monopoly on large concert venues around the country. The record companies pay big to get a few acts to be saturated on the radio, and who therefore have almost exclusive access to large stages, leaving little or no room for innovation. There’s a good reason I’ve given up listening to the radio for music. Because of the requirements of mass distribution, the superstars have to appeal to the widest possible demographic, making them generic and bland (but hopefully also young and nubile). Instead of realizing that they’ve shot themselves in the foot, the RIAA would rather scapegoat the Internet. Having squeezed as much blood as they could from their musicians, they are now after the blood of their consumers.

Certain people think of the new iTunes as a way out of it. After all, it’s legal, it’s safe, and it’s relatively cheap. But there are any number of things wrong with the iTunes approach. First, it admits to the record labels that they are right about music sharing, that it is a form of stealing. That’s a cheap way of going about it, and there is still quite a bit to be said about “fair use” provisions of copyright. There are also deep philosophical issues about whether a musical work can be owned at all, much less owned by some entity that didn’t create it. This will play itself out in the courts and in Congress for the next several decades, and is something to which anyone who enjoys listening to music needs to pay careful attention.

Meanwhile, it also stifles artistic creativity. While it’s the singles on the radio (or seen on MTV) that determine whether or not someone is likely to buy a record, the forgotten tracks are often the real musical gems. How many times have you bought a record and found that an obscure song that gets no airplay is your favorite? Like Aimee Mann and her recent Lost in Space, artists who don’t record with the majors take the entire album to be the complete piece of music. “The Moth” no more makes sense without the rest of the album than the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Fifth without the rest of the symphony. With iTunes, you hear a single on the radio that you like, and you plop down 99 cents for it, and you’re done. Musicians will find it harder and harder to record what they want, because the market for it will shrink severely. Buying the entire album will only be for the adventurous and the obsessed.

Another problem with iTunes is that it relies on proprietary technology. Never mind that the rules are relaxed compared to other subscription music services, Apple dictates the manner in which you can listen to it and copy it (for yourself as a backup, or to share). If they want a feature turned off, they can. There are rumors that Apple wants to buy out the music business owned by Vivendi Universal. If they later decide that users shouldn’t be allowed to write songs from iTunes to CD-R drives, there’s nobody to stop them. As much rebel chic/indie cred as Apple has, I for one don’t trust them with the way I listen to music.

The solution? Fight back. Peer to peer music sharing is more than a way to get music on the cheap. It’s become a form of social resistance. Because the music industry has left us with no other choice.