Monday, November 14, 2005

CATS & MICE

The recent controversy over Sony Music's evil "anti-piracy" spyware (CLICK HERE, CLICK HERE or CLICK HERE) reminds me of a piece I did for a special edition of Pasatiempo published on the day that the Y2K bug was going to end civilization as we knew it.

I wrote about my predictions for the music industry in the new century. The controversy over Sony's XCP software goes along with what I called an ongoing cat-and-mouse game between music lovers and the music industry.

Now that we're nearly six years onto the 21st Century, let's look back on some of my predictions.

Keep in mind that this article was published before the rise of iPods and iTunes and satellite radio.

And don't give me too much grief because few if any artists followed the Todd Rundgren subscription model I thought at the time might have legs.

And I'm not sure why I referred to Michael Moore as "Mike Moore."

Here's that story:

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
January 1, 2000

Here's what I predict for the future of music in the next century.

Everyone and his dog will be producing their own records whether CDs, MP3s or who-knows-what new alphabet-soup format. Everyone and his dog will be broadcasting their own private "radio" stations over the Internet, featuring dazzling mixes of all kinds of music.

But the only musicians making any real money in the foreseeable future of recorded music will be those mass-marketed by major music corporations, and hyped on commercial radio and corporate-sponsored Web sites.

In other words, the potential democratic effects of electronic technology will make for a healthy musical "underground" with untold treasures of easily available sound. But the music-industry weasel is far from the endangered-species list.

And as long as we're talking in animal metaphors, I predict the cat-and-mouse game between the established music industry and musical "techno-rebels" will continue.

The industry will fight to maintain control over the "product" of music while the "rebels" will keep trying to eliminate the corporate middleman between artist and audience.

The mouse will keep inventing new technology to duplicate and distribute music, and to get around the high prices set by the record companies, and the cat will keep suing to try to stop the mouse.

The cat will yell "piracy!" every time some new threatening software pops up. And the mouse will chuckle, "Yo-ho-ho!"

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

But I predict that the religious right, which in recent years has attacked major record companies over sex and violence in music, will become an ally of those companies in the effort to control and try to censor the Internet.

The following is my look at likely changes in the music business in the century to come.

Radio, radio

Commercial radio is not likely to veer from the troubling trends of recent decades: more stations in the hands of fewer owners, tighter playlists (which means fewer songs on the air but a handful of songs played over and over again), and strict formats created by big-city consultants for specific targeted demographic groups.

Why will those trends continue? Because they work!

Public and community stations will remain looser but as they grow less dependent on government funding and more dependent on yuppie donations, they inevitably will grow more conservative and less experimental.

Also, the Internet will continue to shape the future of radio especially when the technology required to bring "Webcasting" from cyberspace to the car stereo becomes cheap enough and high-quality enough to be practical.

The Internet will allow drivers to choose from radio stations all over the world, as well as Web-based options all-blues channels, 24- hour punk rock, Korean newscasts, Nazi talk shows, whatever.

In a 1998 article, the CNN Financial Network Web page lists the advantages of online music programming.

"Listeners can access hundreds of channels organized by genre or set up custom listening programs to hear only specific types of music," the article reads. "Additionally Internet radio programmers can reach a worldwide audience because they're not limited by frequencies, which is why so many local stations have taken to making their programming available on the Internet."

So if you leave New Mexico and get lonesome for KBAC-FM 98.1 or KTAO-FM 101.5, you can call up those stations and listen to them over your computer. The RealAudio Web site, realaudio.com, lists those plus five other New Mexico stations; as well as Sikhnet Radio, a Web- based station featuring East Indian music Webcast from Northern New Mexico's Sikh community.

At least one other local station is planning to go online, perhaps as soon as next year. More surely will follow.

Technical glitches in Web radio abound.

The CNN article observes that "the audio quality of Webcast music is worse than your average Grateful Dead bootleg tape."

Irritating interruptions are frequent.

But technology is improving almost every day.

With so many potential choices, the future might sound gloomy for regular-old commercial radio stations. But my bet is those stations won't lose much of their audience, at least after the initial novelty of Web radio wears off.

The fact is the silent majority actually likes Top 40, hot new country, oldies and classic rock. So most the time most folks probably won't want to bother with listening to a New York or California station, which plays the same songs as local stations anyway but lacks local news and weather.

The electronic record store

Of all aspects of the music industry, the way music is bought and sold is likely to go through the most radical transformation.

In the past couple years record-company executives have been pulling out their hair over the invention of MP3, which allows artists to sell or give away CD-quality songs or entire albums as Internet downloads.

You can play MP3s on new portable stereo MP3 players, which sell for about $150 to $350 each, or on personal computers. If history holds true for those gizmos as with other electronic devices, MP3 players should become better and cheaper with time.

The July 1997 issue of Rock & Rap Confidential, a newsletter edited by veteran rock critic Dave Marsh, has the following to say about MP3s and other new music technology.

"Throughout most of human history, music has been free. Over the past century, the advance of technology allowed music to be turned into various configurations that could be sold. Now the further advance of technology is returning music to its original, free state.

"There are only two choices. We can run for protection into the arms of an obsolete, corrupt music industry that through high prices, payola, censorship and incredibly narrow artist rosters keeps us from hearing most of the music made on our planet; or we can with open arms embrace the new technology and its potential to make all the music available to all the people all the time."

The article notes that Hilary Rosen, president and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America which is made up of major record labels recently had announced a program "to enlist universities and Internet service providers as snitches who will ferret out free music sites."

"(Rosen) went on to express her fear that people will get used to downloading music for free and thus the industry `must not let a pirate market on the Internet get established before the legitimate one is ready.'

RIAA still aggressively fights what it considers piracy and copyright infringement on the part of those aiding unauthorized downloads of material that legally belongs to the record companies.

Widely reported in November, the organization was preparing a lawsuit against the creators of Napster software that allows music fans to easily search and download one another's MP3 collections. The RIAA has not filed suit as of this writing.

Even so, instead of its initial knee-jerk reaction against MP3s, the RIAA seems to be embracing new music technology.

Testifying before the House Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection in October, Rosen said, "The music industry has not just accepted new technology, we are putting our creative talents to use, working with technology partners and trying out new ways of delivering this important consumer experience.

"Every one of the major recording companies has announced plans to begin offering consumers the music they want in new ways."

Rosen even went so far as to laud the efforts of several well- known acts trying to "fight the power" of the industry and sell directly to their fans.

Rosen and the interest she represents can't really be happy about such efforts. But major companies are beginning to imitate independent efforts, occasionally offering free or discounted MP3 songs.

In her testimony Rosen mentioned the rap group Public Enemy, which this year offered the new album There's a Poison Goin' On in MP3 before selling the recording as a CD. The entire album as a download costs $8 (about half the price of a regular CD) and individual songs in download form sell for $.99 each.

The Rundgren remedy

In her testimony Rosen also mentioned quirky pop rocker Todd Rundgren, who has come up with a radical new idea for selling music.

His Web site offers "subscriptions" to "patrons." For $25, the Rundgren fan gets to preview and download new music online as it's created, has access to rare Rundgren material, gets custom tapes and CDs made at cost, can participate in online chats with the musician, can watch live Internet performances by Rundgren, and gets other goodies.

Rundgren publicist Kelli Richards said in a recent e-mail to Pasatiempo that Rundgren has been selling such subscriptions for a little longer than a year and in 1999 produced "five to eight" new songs for subscribers. She declined to say whether the venture has been profitable.

Even if Rundgren's hasn't been a moneymaker, I predict such musical ventures on the Web will multiply.

The music-biz game

Of course Public Enemy and Rundgren already had their respective global fan bases before going online.

While more and more musicians will be producing and marketing their own music over the Web, and a vast number of Webcast stations will pop up to play the music, the choices for listeners will be overwhelming. How will new artists establish their audiences?

Musicians who shun the major-corporation route but want to spread their music beyond their own computers and their local coffeehouses will have to employ private publicists and promoters like Rundgren's Richards.

In fact record companies, freed from the task of physically manufacturing CDs and tapes, could evolve into glorified public- relations companies for music.

Of course most of the artists those companies will represent will be of the same quality as the safe, nonthreatening acts that dominate today's charts. So those seeking the Ricky Martin-Mariah Carey level of fame still will have to play the big-music-biz game.

The living-room revolution

Followers of nonmainstream music usually demand more intimacy from their musical heroes. One recent trend reported in November in The New York Times could have implications for the future.

"From Seattle to Waco to Queens, more than 300 homeowners have become part-time concert promoters, turning their living rooms into mild-mannered clubs for a night, and scores of performers are discovering that they can make good livings simply by touring these private residences," reporter Neil Strauss writes.

"At a time when live-performance outlets in many places are drying up because of hostility from the police and community groups, house concerts are becoming the most exciting and vital alternative- performance circuit around for acoustic musicians."

The article mentions musicians including Texas songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard and bluegrass jazzman Bela Fleck playing house concerts. In Santa Fe a couple of summers ago, a group of blues lovers brought Mississippi singer T Model Ford to town for some backyard barbecue concerts and a record-store appearance.

For several years "Bumblebee" Bob Weil has turned the garage of his La Tierra home into "The Hive," where he has held jazz concerts headlined by Bucky Pizzarelli, Milt Hinton, Wynton Marsalis and Cedar Walton. But Weil sold his house in 1999, so The Hive buzzes no more.

Though house concerts might seem to be a low-tech reaction to the modern world, Strauss observes, "The Internet has made it possible for those who run house concerts to promote the shows at no cost, keep in contact with one another and hunt down possible performers."

Vigilant vigilantes

Most of the above predictions are contingent on the conceit that the Web will continue to operate free of charge to users and unfettered by governmental interference. Taking that for granted probably is not wise.

In a recent e-mail to his fans, filmmaker (Roger and Me) and television producer (The Awful Truth) Mike Moore writes, "Those in charge must rue the day the Internet was invented. And of course they are now busy trying to think of any way possible to get control of the thing or to block it, censor it, restrict it, make you pay more for it, and make themselves much bigger profits."

I see common ground among radio talk-show personality "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger, other right-wingers calling for war over porn on the Internet, and the RIAA suing software manufacturers and pressuring colleges to shut down Web sites.

No, it's not a "conspiracy." But each of those parties would benefit from a tamer, controlled, neutered Internet.

When the government moves in to "stop porn" on the Web, it's not that big of a leap to squelch other activities big-moneyed interests don't like. Remember folks, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Good listening to all in the 21st century.

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