Rockin' in the Free World

Music Wars: Open Mike, the live town hall Michaela and I hosted on the music sharing mess last week, is re-airing in an hour long form from time to time on TechTV. If you didn't get a chance to see it, check your listings. I think it's well worth watching. I understand the Music Wars special was shown at a class at the Library of Congress for U.S Representatives, Senators and staff called Peer to Peer 101. I've always been conflicted over the Music Wars. Stealing music is unequivocally wrong. But it's also clear that the current music system is unfair to most artists and music lovers. I am convinced that the record companies are pursuing a wrongheaded course with copy protection, lawsuits, and digital rights managements. In other words, I am stuck between conflicting points of view, like most everybody else.

After listening to all the parties, I think I've finally realized where the paradox lies. We've all been drinking the record company's kool-aid by buying into their marketing. It's no coincidence that the most downloaded artists are the biggest record company stars: the Metallicas, Madonnas, and Mobys of the world. The recording industry spends millions making these acts into stars, building the demand for their records with radio airplay, advertising campaigns, and publicity blitzes. It works. We want their music. The conflict occurs when we're unwilling to pay for their songs, and download them free instead. Of course the record companies are incensed. And they ought to be. They spend millions to make these people stars, then we spend nothing to own their music.

But what would happen if we didn't buy the hype. What if, instead of clamoring for the manufactured stars, we used the power of the web and peer-to-peer file sharing to discover new, independent musicians. The music companies would have us believe that their A&R system uncovers all the talent out there but I'm convinced that only a tiny number of the great artists in the world makes it up the music biz ladder. There are thousands of musicians working every day who are just as good as those you hear on the Top 40 charts. Dare I say, maybe even better? The egalitarian potential of digital recording and Internet distribution means that these artists can finally get a chance to be heard.

What would have happened if Chuck D and Public Enemy had had the tools to create their own web site and distributed their own music from the start? Would they have reached an audience? Certainly. Would they have become mega-millionaires? Probably not, but they would have been able to make a very good living. If all music were distributed this way, directly from artist to listener, many more artists would have a better chance to be heard and work full-time at their art. Furthermore, the billions of dollars that are siphoned off to support the moribund marketing, manufacturing, and distribution machine of the current music industry would be freed up to support even more musicians.

What I'm proposing is the democratization of the music business. Instead of five mammoth companies deciding what music gets recorded and distributed, and collecting the lion's share of profits as their reward, every musician would have a chance to be heard. Instead of two companies playing the same songs over and over on US radio, thousands of Internet radio stations would flourish worldwide. Many more artists would have a voice; those who connected most directly with an audience would prosper. Sure music piracy would still occur, but the availability of legitimate sources of digital music unencumbered by byzantine DRM schemes, and the more direct connection between the artists and their audience, would encourage fans to pay for the music they love. Unlike the record companies, I do not believe that we are a nation of thieves. I think most music lovers are honest people who are willing to pay a reasonable price to the artists we enjoy.

Time is running out, though. After years of stonewalling, the music industry has finally seen the light. Unfortunately, instead of using this opportunity to democratize the system, they're merely recasting their inherently unfair business model for the digital era. And just as they did when we upgraded our LPs to cassettes, and our cassettes to CDs, they stand to reap a huge windfall profit on the move to digital music without in any way improving the lot of the artists who are the true and only source of the music we love.

You can't blame the industry. The privileged always act to preserve their position. If we want to reinvent the way music is recorded and distributed, the burden is on us, the people who love music most.

The solution is simple. If you want to own a hit you heard on the radio, you should buy it from the record company that produced it. That's not only the law, it's the right thing to do. But if you want to support a future where every musician has an equal chance to find an audience, dig deeper. Look for unsigned and independent artists. Buy their music online; attend their concerts. Support Internet radio stations that play independent artists. We have an opportunity to remake the music business in a way that best serves artists and music lovers. The only casualty will be a business that has made a fortune stealing from both. The solution is not to steal from the record companies, but to eliminate them entirely.

Further reading:

Some places to go for independent music:

  • The Internet Underground Music Archives, IUMA, has always been a great source of undiscovered music.

  • EMusic represents 950 smaller labels. Their flat fee subscription service offers a variety of lesser known music in a paranoia free high-quality MP3 format.
  • Shoutcast and Live365 serve thousands of Internet radio stations. To dig deeper check the Radio-Locator, formerly the MIT List.

Please comment - what do you think? And if you know of a great source of independent music, post it here, too!