The Musical Water Is Wide

Last week’s column on the growing conflict between the law and MP3 lovers struck a chord with several readers.

In the last few weeks, record companies have escalated their war against programs like Napster and Gnutella, which enable the collection of music they control. They have enlisted artists in the fight, including rap artists, prompting universities like Yale and cable operators like Cox Cable in San Diego to crack down on users.

The plain fact is this fight isn’t necessary. Dr. Dre and Metallica are acting on behalf of the people who have dissed them for decades. Record deals are notoriously one-sided. Few artists hold copyright on their own music. They sign the deals because there is no other route to the market.

MP3 isn’t yet an alternative. The quality of the format is poor it’s often called “near-CD quality” but that’s being kind. Most of the music available on the format isn’t worth listening to. It has been primarily a promotional vehicle.

But every MP3 needs a player to run, like MusicMatch, the Windows Media Player, AOL’s Winamp or the RealPlayer. All the players include ample screen “real estate,” but only Real has begun to exploit it.

At the same time, browser-based freebies abound free computers, free ISP service, free broadband service, even free lottery tickets. To get this free stuff you just hand over data that lets the giver target ads to you.

If data is worth a computer, or even $10 million, it must certainly be worth some music files that take megabytes to store and lack CD quality. It’s a marriage made in heaven, especially since the heaviest users of these files are the kind of young, active consumers every company desires.

The problem is the music companies want more than the market is willing to give. They’re launching encrypted formats and preparing to sell songs at prices of $1 each. If you don’t want to pay cash, they figure you’re a pirate and deserve to rot in jail.

The hardball stance is understandable only if you mistake who it’s aimed at. BMG, Sony and their brethren aren’t really interested in MP3 profits (although they would be nice). They are fighting to maintain control of the musicians. If popular music is free for an ad, then who needs the publisher? But if you have to pay to download music, and music publishers control the necessary technology, then Alice remains in chains.

The same problem exists in the book business, by the way. That’s why Stephen King is my hero. King recently penned a 66-page novella a magazine might pay him $10,000 for, which earned over $400,000 in downloads at Softlock within a day.

The King success is seen as justification for what the record companies are doing, but I think there’s a different lesson. Name-brand content sells, and the author (or musician) is the brand.

Give me a few name-brand musicians with the courage of Stephen King, and we’ll save a bunch of kids (and their grandmothers) from jail. We’ll also change the world of music.

The water here is wide. I can’t get across by myself. I have no wings to fly over, either. It takes a boat that can carry two (both technology and advertising) to get my beloved music and me across. Both must row.

That was the best song on the first “Lilith Fair” album. Why can’t I get it legally? I doubt Jewel, Sarah McLachlan or the Indigo Girls are really standing in the way of it.

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