Sunday, July 11, 2004

The Private Revolution

By Carl Sundberg
Pulse Columnist
January 29, 2004

One theory of how the dinosaurs went extinct is that they killed themselves off. Not on purpose, but because they just didn't know how to survive. They grew too large to adapt to their surroundings. They couldn't see the errors of their ways, and their Darwinian instincts were not quite intact.

The music industry could learn a lot from history. Just like the dinosaurs might have done to themselves, the music industry is slowly aiding its own self-extinction. The final vestige of this dying organism is a last strike, an all-or-nothing bet. Lawsuits against file-sharers, insane pricing of CDs and monopolistic holds on an artist's material are all prongs of the industry's last strike. But like any prophetic statement, there is more warning behind these words than fulfillment. There is the possibility of change.

But what can be done? The answer is complex. But there is one fatal flaw that has become excruciatingly obvious to most music fans: There is no diversity.

Once upon a time, you could listen to the radio and hear a little of everything. It was like a buffet. The dishes included hip-hop, soul, rock, jazz, blues and pop all on the same station. Today's mainstream sound is the that of white noise when you compare it to what is actually happening in this country. The diversity in music has exponentially increased, while the media for communicating these distinct and innovative sounds have decreased.

The lack of attention to diversity, coupled with the rise of technological wonders such as Kazaa and Napster, has given the audience power once again. This has created one of the greatest movements in the history of music. A private revolution, if you will.

But for the music industry, it is the source of its collapse.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, the music industry rakes in $40 billion annually. The United States takes about a third of this. These enormous profits are dwindling due to music pirates. This has turned the big companies into angry giants, crushing any and all in their path. On Jan. 21 of this year, 526 new
lawsuits were filed against music pirates, on top of the thousands from last year. This tactic is merely dealing with symptoms, not the disease, and it has done little to stop piracy. Like the "War on Terrorism," this battle will continue indefinitely.

One issue in suing file pirates is the offshore cases. How do you sue someone in Argentina? Another problem relates to perception. The average file pirate doesn't feel he or she is ripping off any artist, if they think about it at all. It's the corporate media outlets that are getting the brunt of the loss. This is partly right. In a recent interview in Progressive magazine, Tom Morello, guitarist for Audioslave, says that an average record deal gives the musician "10 cents on the dollar" while "the record label gets 90 cents on the dollar." With this kind of unfair treatment of artists, it's crazy to think we even have a music community.

If the labels were smart, they would invest their money in research and development rather than police tactics. They would seek a way to please the masses rather than attack them. They would find ways of embracing change rather than fearing it. They would diversify their sources of revenue rather than greedily and ignorantly milk a dying cash cow.

The possible combinations are rather endless when imagination is set forth. It's strange to think that no honest attempts have been made by the industry to promote diversity through technology. The thinking has all been inside the box.

But this is good for any smart college student with some entrepreneurial spirit. The music industry is a ripe new playing field. While the odds are against a new form taking shape, it's looking brighter every day.

We are living in a time when fresh ideas are blossoming at a feverish pace. The dinosaurs that roamed this land are not agile enough to change their ways. They can't adapt quickly enough and they are on their last legs.

Out of this slow extinction will emerge an entire generation of young, bright people who only wish to hear and promote amazing music. They won't care about the bottom line. They won't care about fortune, about fame. They are out there, right now, in the clubs, on the phones, in the studios, behind the computers and behind the scenes, planning the next logical step.

The power is shifting, spreading back into the people's hands again. The idea that is simmering will be one of musical diversity and equality. Music will be freed from the tyranny of industry and become the music of the people again, like it once was, back before dinosaurs roamed the earth


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