Music News

Pirates of the Cyberspace

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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."



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Brian Smith
Contact: Brian Smith