Music News

Pirates of the Cyberspace

Not since his admission in the late '70s that "dancing about and wearing loads of makeup" was but a dopey career move has Lou Reed uttered anything so classically obvious and stiltedly spot-on as his recent pronouncement: "Artists, like anyone else, should be paid for their work." Several of you may suspect that Reed's recent comment was a reference to his back catalogue, most of which is so long out of print that it means lean times with his royalty statements. But in fact Reed's in a snit over Napster Inc., the MP3 file-transferring service that, as any idiot can see, is an evil antithesis to songwriter/publisher royalty checks.

And Reed ain't the only miffed one. Hell, the Beastie Boys, Aimee Mann, Debbie Harry, Elton, Creed, Black Crowes, Dr. Dre and others have come out in recent months decrying Napster. Everclear's Art Alexakis said forthrightly that Napster is "taking money out of my kid's mouth."

Metallica recently sued Napster for copyright infringement with evidence of more than 300,000 copyright infringements and more than a million traded songs.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is also suing Napster and last week won the first round of its copyright infringement suit.

It's not surprising that RIAA is in on the cause, having just recently steamrolled online music trailblazers into court, claiming copyright infringement.'s birth of a free music database called Beam-It allowed customers remote access to music that could be freely distributed throughout the Web. This tactic violated the most basic writer/publisher copyright laws. A federal judge in New York agreed. Watch for the fun precedent-setting legal battle over damages. The RIAA is asking for max dough ($150,000) for each illegal CD (more than 40,000) that dropped into its Beam-It database. Songwriters and publishers will no doubt enter the fracas and sue for damages.

The RIAA is the music industry trade group whose goals are, among other things, to "protect intellectual property rights worldwide and the First Amendment rights of artists." The RIAA also doles out the gold, platinum and multiplatinum sales awards.

Napster Inc. was created a few years back by a doughy 17-year-old kid from Massachusetts named Shawn Fanning. The site is adored by hundreds of thousands of self-involved teens and adults, and despised by rich rock stars, insolvent songwriters and your average dude from the old country.

Basically, by connecting to Napster's free, easy-as-pie server, you can access MP3s stored on another user's hard drive. And since Napster's users trade files among themselves, and the fact that an MP3 file itself isn't prohibited, Napster argued that it was protected from the actions of its customers.

Napster sees itself as a simple provider of Internet service, much like phone lines or Internet servers. The company adheres to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) passed by Congress two years ago by offering on its site a disclaimer that says, "You should be aware that some MP3 files may have been created or distributed without copyright owner authorization. As a condition to your account with Napster, you agree that you will not use the Napster service to infringe the intellectual property rights of others in any way."

The latter line is rather droll considering that most any song you can think of -- from the Beatles to Da Brat -- can be found and downloaded using the Napster site.

And a quick look at the figures tells you the whole thing stinks for everyone, even those who end up with hard drives full of bootlegged tunes: Writers don't get royalties, and the songs often suffer from poor quality.

Copyrighted music through MP3 portals is being downloaded by the shitload. Conservative estimates say that more than 10 million users worldwide are now using Napster, Gnutella and Hotline file-sharing programs, 10 times that of a year ago. Napster is synonymous with Internet music, yet handfuls of other companies are sprouting forth offering even more sophisticated file-transferring applications.

Many of these Napsterish sites, such as Gnutella, Cute MX and imesh, utilize not just MP3 music files but any form of file they choose to make available to users. Finding and trading a myriad of file types -- from software and porn videos to movies and books -- is already reality.

Romanticists, like millionaire rock bands the Offspring and Limp Bizkit (whose anticipated "free" tour is bankrolled by Napster), say the Nap is a great way to promote up-and-coming bands, a way to promote records.

If you think about it, the $40 billion-a-year record biz does provide livelihood for inconceivable numbers of people, from the local zitted music-store clerk, to the college music scribe turned indie label PR flack, to the Range Roving lawyer/agent type, to the label/media mogul who flies in custom jets, to the teen-dot-com dork. Threaded through all of these are zillions of jobs.

But the music industry is based on songs, and all those jobs would shrivel up and fly away if the songwriters one day just up and quit. Even now, how many worthy songwriters actually earn a living?

And it's not just the usual bit about the "artist" suffering from the invention of a language that is not his own -- the "business" side to his "art." As it stands, a successful songwriter sees just a fraction of what he earns for others, even if he's successful and in the position to negotiate a killer contract.

A songwriter's major source of income is the mechanical royalties from sales (CD, tape, record, etc.). Royalties are also generated from songs that receive TV and radio play or are performed in a concert hall or broadcast in a foreign country, the sale of sheet music and the use of a song in a commercial or film.

The current U.S. mechanical rate of 7.5 cents per song means a single that sells a million copies would be worth a total of $75,000 in combined royalties to the publisher and writer. In terms of album sales, the above royalties would be multiplied by the number of songs on the album. If 10 songs were included on a CD and each received a 7.5-cent royalty, a total of 75 cents in mechanical royalties would be generated from the sale of each album. If the album goes platinum (one million copies), the album's combined writer and publisher royalties would be $750,000.

The money doesn't stop there. A songwriter doesn't have to be Cisco Pike to see that palms are extended from all directions -- lawyers, managers, labels, agents and band members who don't write songs. They all get their share, too. Even if you move a million records, once the expenses and fees are paid, it doesn't necessarily mean shit in fiscal terms.

A songwriter getting screwed by the powers that be is a long-standing tradition in music. But I can't think of a similar time when music fans were the ones willfully sodomizing the guy with the tune. The Internet has spawned a breed selfish with the greedy desire for quick free stuff. I don't care what anybody says -- and at the risk of sounding like the classically obvious Mr. Reed -- even a 16-year-old should be able to understand that if you give away a person's songs, that person won't get paid.

The sad irony is those Napster brats are making a good living by knowingly offering access to tens of thousands of songs they don't own.

Then there are the other horrible truths about downloaded music. There is a simple but rare-to-pinpoint decrease in its intrinsic value. When music is reduced to compressed sound files, it loses aesthetic context other than the technology of its transport. The tune arrives cryptically absent of the passion, feeling or color once contained on its original recording. Songs are now referred to in such disagreeable terms as "digital information" and "data product," royalty-free downloads for attention-deficit, thankless brats. And bandwidths, computer architecture and the simple law of diminishing returns magically remove the exultant and sometimes life-altering moments of great songs: the heart, sex, soul, air and life.

In context, a song like Ryuichi Sakamoto's "Forbidden Colors" or even Everclear's "Heartspark Dollarsign" sounds tepid, trivialized to some low common denominator and left to decompose in its ashen archives. Songs now have the consequential impact of bulk email advertising, get-rich-at-home schemes.

This is not to say MP3s and music file-sharing have no value. In fact, I just got an MP3 the other day from a songwriter friend of mine who's living in London. She recorded a song, dumped it into a file and shot it over. She wanted to know what I thought, using the simple process that otherwise would have taken weeks.

But I'm not sold on the notion that MP3s are solid means to draw attention to worthy, unsigned bands. You don't know the disservice Limp Bizkit has done to the face of pop music until you weed through the myriad of new band song files. It reminded me of the days when I was required to actually listen to horrible local demos while working as a club booker. After suffering through hours and hours of MP3 downloads of unknown bands, I wanted to take my own life.

Instead of shining light on new talent, sites like Napster have just provided a platform for unknown bands to develop healthy self-proclamation skills, to write their own press, to tout their skills as a force to be reckoned with. Anybody can be described as "best shit since Nirvana" or "the true descendant of Notorious B.I.G."

Shit, if it's on the Internet, it must be true.

Worst of all is the ubiquitous attitude inherent with the Napster folk and their overall teen-themed underlings that music and its open source technology should be not only royalty-free, but also free in general.

Fortunately, technology on the horizon probably will reduce this piracy by limiting the transfer of copyrighted songs. So what if I sound like I'm from the old country? Music was never supposed to be about such faceless anonymity; it was meant as a real source of community fanfare offering face-to-face exchanges and dialogue. Don't let technology-based ideas of bored teens dictate how music should be perceived, heard, assimilated and paid for.

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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith