The music industry claims to be re-taking control of the distribution of digital music, after battering by MP3's, rogue bands selling music directly on the Net, the posting of of music files online and on-line audio sites with vast archives and libraries.
Don't bet on it.
The music industry claims to be beating back the Mp3 revolution and regaining control of the sale and distribution of music.
In recent weeks, music industry executives have begun telling the media that they are moving out of the piracy era back into a more "legitimate" - that is to say outrageously monopolistic -- marketplace.
Translation: The Revolution is Over.
But saying so doesn't make it so. Music traffic on websites, ICQ and Hotline, and via private e-mail, suggests this is a fairy tale spun for the benefit of gullible journalists and middle-class consumers.
Five major record labels - Sony, Universal, Warner, BMC and EMI - dominate the $40 billion global music business, outside of the country of Colombia perhaps the world's largest cartel. They control 85 per cent of recorded music sales in the United States.
In recent years, these labels have been caught completely off guard by the Mp3-led Net-based music revolution that permitted music lovers and consumers to acquire for free the music they wanted rather than the expensive CD's the record companies decided they should buy. The companies have also panicked at bands selling music directly over the Net, and on-line audio sites carrying ever bigger archives and libraries.
At first, the industry responded with bluster, confusion and its hallmark greed.
But the Empire has now struck back. The labels have gone to war against free digital music, lobbying colleges to shut down free music sites, threatening legal action against pirate websites, and using their music libraries and stars as weapons to persuade high-tech companies to cooperate with efforts to encrypt and control the digital distribution of music. They say they're winning.
"Eighteen months ago, people in the tech community told me I was crazy to think we could develop an on-line music business" that protects copyright, Hilary B. Rosen of the Recording Industry of America told the New York Times this week. Another music industry analyst said last week that the five major labels had come together re-assert control of cyberspace, banding together for their "collective good."
Whatever takes control of digital distribution, assuming anyone can, you can bet that the collective good of the record companies isn't the same as yours.
Industry executives claim the their recently-adopted Secure Digital Music Initiative, in which recording, technology and consumer electronic companies agreed to standards for protecting music copyrights in on-line music sales, will turn the tide.
In addition to bombarding free music websites with "cease-and-desist" letters from lawyers, shutting down 2,000 of them, according to the record companies, the music companies have spent more than $1 million on a campaign enlisting colleges to join the crackdown and persuade students not to trade pirated music. The companies say more than 200 schools have pledged to try and stop students from using campus computers or Net connections to copy recordings.
The industry is scrambling to clamp down on free online music before fall, when the major labels will begin putting their libraries online. It wants protection in place for the Christmas shopping season, when portable digital players are expected to sell through the roof.
The record companies strategy is clear enough. If the middle-class consumers pouring online get into the habit of buying music on the Web and listening to it on digital players, the companies hope they can break the cycle of free and shared music developed by kids - especially geek and college kids - in the past several years.
It isn't clear whether these industry claims are true or not.
But the reality of music distribution online suggests they aren't. The trading of songs via ICQ and Hotline and e-mail attachments, according to anybody's personal observation, and to music-loving geeks, is continuing to explode.
"That's complete BS," said one Boston geek of the industry's claims. "I've gotten 200 MP3's in the past week. You could shut down 2,000 music sites, and you wouldn't put a dent in the traffic. Not only are there thousands, but they can simply re-form and re-name themselves. The morph, form different nodes. Letters from lawyers are a joke."
And 200 colleges is a fraction of the country's schools. Nor is it clear how deeply the colleges want to get involved in policing campus websites and Net connections, a loser of a mission if ever there was one.
A Chicago music lover e-mailed me that goes on one of the messaging boards nightly where he uses "click-referrals," -- spotters online get a small amount of money - about 25 cents - to steer music buyers to websites where they can get music for little money or for free. [I went on a half-dozen Sunday night]. Countless Web sites were operating openly, along with plenty of individual traders, and all were blissfully unaware of any music industry crackdown.
"Some of the hot places are the messaging boards," e-mailed JE, who ran a free music-trading site until a few months ago. "There are millions of people in ICQ and Hotlines and those guys [the record companies] are nuts if they think they're going to stop this with a few letters and some bullshit propaganda campaigns to colleges. The idea that the websites have vanished is utterly bogus."
The battle between music lovers and the recording industry has enormous economic and political significance for other businesses and institutions.
The core issues are really choice and price, and whether individuals can take back some creative power and influence for the mega-corporations that now control American culture, from music to broadcasting to publishing. Before Mp3's, people had no option but to buy CD's, which invariably include songs they didn't want as well as songs they did. The big labels have also exerted a near total monopoly on the development of new artists, a practice the online distribution of music has also shattered.
In the United States, the five labels sell $14 billion worth of music every year. Small wonder kids rebelled and began downloading the music they wanted.
The industry hasn't responded by offering music lovers greater choice - cheaper recorders, more artists, say, or customized CD's sold in smaller, less expensive units. They're reacted mostly by working to preserve their greedy monopoly.
The MP3, like the TV zapper, has turned out to be an intensely political bit of technology. Zappers and switchers permitted TV watchers to take control of their sets back from the three networks that monopolized TV programming for half-a-century. People could make choices about what they wanted to watch, and were no longer forced to choose from the tepid offerings of three networks.
MP3's have done the same for people who listen to music. For the television and music industries -- and for many other businesses to come -- things won't ever be the same, not matter how many press releases come pouring out of corporate offices.
This is an issue many people online feel passionately about. The music companies aren't fighting to preserve artistic control of intellectual property, as they claim, but their monopoly over a fantastically lucrative -- and monopolistic -- chunk of pop culture. Logically, the ability to music listeners to record and distribute music digitally seems far ahead of the means to encrypt and control it. The industry claims that after the initial shock caused by the spread of free music digitally, it's regained the upper hand.
Don't buy it. Their propaganda is a lot more effective than their technology. These myopic pronouncements suggest the record companies haven't yet gotten the real import of interactive technologies like the zapper and the MP3: people are used to participation and choice. And they aren't like to give either up.