Is the Funky Music Back Now?

A year and a half ago, I wrote a Front Page Rant called “No More Playin’ That Funky Music.” I was mad when I wrote that. You see, I’d read over the days leading up to that rant about a brilliant idea [sarcasm alert!] hatched by Universal Music Group—parent company of Interscope Geffen A&M, Island Def Jam, MCA Nashville, MCA Records, Motown Records, and more—to release CD’s that couldn’t be played on computers. The theory was that if CD’s didn’t work on computers, people couldn’t rip them into MP3’s and share them on the internet.

There are two very important points that UMG and their brethren like BMG who joined in on this idea later were missing.

The first point is that music pirates aren’t idiots, in fact they’re usually really smart computer nerds. I can say from experience that smart computer nerds know how to make MP3’s from CD’s without playing the CD in a computer. All it takes is a non-computer CD player, a decent stereo cable, and any number of available freeware programs that take about 5 minutes to download.

The second point was the one closest to my heart. UMG forgot about people like me who use their computers as their stereo AND buy their CD’s legally. Let me tell you, I won’t buy a CD that won’t play on my PowerMac G4 since it serves as my stereo. So, news flash guys, since the pirates would still be sharing their illegal MP3’s and music purchasers like me would cut back on CD purchases, this ingenious move would hurt CD sales rather than help them.

Thankfully, even though UMG said they’d be doing this to all their CD’s within a year I think they really only did it to 3 or 4 and they were generally disliked by the music-buying public anyway. So no harm done, and maybe I was little quick to call for that boycott. But I was unhappy with the music industry for more reason than that expressed in my January, 2002 rant (and I was unhappy with more than just the music industry—read the end of that rant, I had nothing nice to say about music pirates). Part of why I was so mad had to do with the close-minded attitude of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and its music industry membership, and more importantly the dearth of decent stuff to listen to.

I don’t know if you remember the music scene in 2001 and the first part of 2002, I keep trying to forget it, but through that year there wasn’t much to listen to other than 65 bands that sounded just like Nickelback, a bunch of rappers without talent, and the Britney Spears era pop-princesses.

On the attitudinal front at the time, there was no logical way to buy music digitally and legally online. Because of the draconian copyright protections put on online music by the RIAA and its members, the only way to get music online was to fight with stringent rules and limitations on the legal ones or to resort to illegal methods of getting your music. Furthermore, the prices of physical CD’s (which are less costly to produce than cassette tapes, by the way) hovered between $11.99 and $18.99. That’s a long shot better than a few years back when the obscure CD from an unknown band ran $16.99 and anything popular was closer to $20, but any economics major or music lover will tell you is still way over the supply/demand equilibrium.

If that wasn’t reason enough to account for slow album sales, they were all producing carbon-copy bands. If every band out there has one or two radio hits, but they’re all in exactly the same style, nobody has an emotional connection to any one band or any reason at all to buy their CD’s. That’s why Matchbox Twenty remains one of the best selling new bands—nobody sounds like them, people have an emotional connection to them. The same goes for Eminem (whether you like him or not).

But I’m not writing this rant to lambast and insult the music industry, although it wouldn’t be a fair rant without mentioning all of those things. The industry is in trouble, and nobody over at the RIAA (which is about a block away from my office in DC) seems to understand why. But for the first time in a while, I’m actually starting to feel good about the direction of music.

On the attitudinal side, Apple Computer did something crazy a little while back and came out with the iTunes Music Store. This store lets people—currently just Mac users, but a Windows version is promised by the end of the year—buy songs or entire albums online for cheap ($9.99 for most albums, $0.99 for most songs) and have them downloaded to their hard drive in a few minutes. But what differentiates this store from previous online efforts—aside from Apple’s ease of use—is the support of the RIAA and all the major record labels.

You see, lots and lots of songs are available—popular stuff, obscure stuff, random stuff, great stuff—and you can actually listen to them wherever you want. You can burn them to CD’s. You can authorize them to be played on up to three computers. You actually have some freedom and control over how the music you buy gets used. I have no doubt that Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, had something to do with this, but I commend the RIAA and its members for going along with it. This kind of system (once it makes it to the wider Windows audience) will be an important part of your industry being spared the doom it was on the road toward.

But perhaps the most pleasant change in the music industry over the last year and a half is the improvement in the music. Hit songs have been from bands and individuals who are actually musicians, or at least have something original to put forth. Turn on the radio right now, there’s a decent chance that Matchbox Twenty, Norah Jones, Santana, Eminem, Maroon 5, Michelle Branch, Vanessa Carlton, Avril Lavigne, or No Doubt is playing. You know, people who write their music, put their heart into it, and come up with something new and interesting. This is a step in the right direction.

The RIAA still acts sometimes like it has an agitated monkey up its butt. They’ve been prominently mentioned in the news recently for filing over 870 subpoenas to obtain the names of people suspected of sharing music illegally and are planning to press charges against anybody they catch sharing copyrighted music. Apparently nobody at the RIAA has read the number of studies indicating that music-sharers are statistically more likely to buy CD’s than people who don’t share music at all. That’s right guys, piss of your most devout fans.

Physical CD’s are still more expensive than most of them are worth, and there is still too strong a tendency to cookie-cutter any sound that gets popular (and thereby undercut the sales of the band that came up with that sound). But I can’t help thinking optimistically about the future of music when I turn on the radio and hear a song with a tune again. I can’t help but think that things are going in the right direction when I can buy an album through iTunes, and five minutes later be listening to it and burning it to CD. These are good things, and if they’re both allowed to continue and grow, maybe the music industry will be able to save itself.

For a while, I had budgeted money to buy two or three CD’s every month. But when I realized how idiotic the industry was behaving— how little I was getting for the money, how the RIAA was always trying to make its customers feel like criminals, how they were threatening to make it so I couldn’t even play my own CD’s on my own computer/stereo—I cut back. In fact, for some time I didn’t buy hardly any music at all. I’m getting back into the habit now because I love the feeling I get listening to a new album, hearing good songs that I’ve never heard before, and because I don’t feel so bad giving the industry money any more now that they’re supporting decent musicians and decent, inexpensive distribution methods.

I find myself wondering though, how much of the music sales drop was because of MP3 sharing and how much was because people like me starting feeling dirty giving the recording industry money? I think that the results of a poll like that might surprise the RIAA.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.