Independent Music?

  • Independent Music?
    Two sort of related items here. First, by now everyone should have heard about the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision against Napster, allowing it to continue operating but ordering that a lower court modify its injunction against the service. The result being that it’s likely that lower court will force Napster to curb the trading of files pending a trial.
    The second item is an article from Wired News covering the Do It Yourself Conference for indpendent music, film and publishing artists.

    I bundled these items together because I do think that the fate of Napster has some bearing on independent artists, especially when it comes to distribution. While it’s hard to argue that Napster isn’t primarily used to trade major-label music, the service nonetheless allows indpendent artists a cheap way to get their music out there and listened to. It’s akin to the networks of people trading demos of underground music like punk, metal and rap mix tapes, which have been active for the last twenty years or so. Although the artists don’t receive direct renumeration for their works, it’s the publicity and development of a fan base that is the real benefit. It is ironic that Metallica–one of Napster’s harshest critics–gained their early popularity though just that sort of network.

    Even the music industry itself recogizes the promotional power of free music. As anyone who has worked in a radio station or record store knows, the major recording labels shower these outlets with free CDs, sometimes boxes of a single release, to give to DJs, employees, customers and listeners, in order to drum up interest in a particular release or artist. Yet, in most cases the cost of these promotional items come out of the artist’s advance from the record company–most recording contracts require artists to pay for all promotional costs out of their royalties, but give the artists little to no control over these costs (for more on this state of affairs see this cover story from Maximum Rock N Roll #133).

    The only difference between the free CDs that the record industry showers on industry insiders and Napster is that the record companies have little control over Napster. Despite the fact that overall CD sales were up last year, the industry refuses to recognize the value of file-sharing as a promotional tool that actually incurs no costs for the record industry, since they don’t need to press free CDs or pay to distribute them on Napster. And this is while independnet music promoters have recently jumped on the Napster bandwagon, using the service’s instant messaging tool to chat up people who have mp3s of music from their clients’ or who have mp3s of music similar to their clients’, in order to turn on these Napster users to new CDs and artists.

    I have no particular defense of Napster itself, since they care less about the principle of freely exchanged music than they do about lining their own pockets, and are likely to bend over for the recording industry any day now. Instead, what the whole peer-to-peer file sharing issue–whether it’s Napster or Gntuella–boils down to is control. The corporate entertainment oligopoly wants as much control over what you listen to and watch, including when, where and how, as it can have. If the industry had its way, you would have to pay a small fee every time you heard or watched anything. But somehow the public is not willing to accept those terms, and so the industry will use all methods it has available to force these terms, or something close to them, onto the public. They try to exert that same control over music makers and arttists as well, abhoring the tools that give any independent artist feasible means for effective distribution. Whether Napster falls or not, this debate will not go away, and the entertainment industry will not give up its fight for control.

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