Black Tuesday

May 15 is closing fast, kids.

We’re all good little netizens here, so I assume everyone knows what that means, right? Show of hands?

Yes, you there, in the back; the large, unkempt-looking fellow. Yes, why don’t you step to the front and tell everyone who hasn’t been paying attention what’s going on?

The LOC’s Copyright Royalty Board issued notice on March 2 of this year that, effective May 15, royalty fees levied against internet-based broadcasters for the usage of commercially-recorded music would increase by anywhere from 300% to as much as 1200% (dependent on a broadcaster’s existing royalty fee cost structure). In addition, this measure will be considered effective retroactively from January 1, 2006. Popular activist site sums up the situation nicely:

At the request of the Recording Industry Association of America, the CRB ignored the fact that Internet radio royalties were already double what satellite radio pays, and multiplied the royalties even further. The 2005 royalty rate was 7/100 of a penny per song streamed; the 2010 rate will be 19/100 of a penny per song streamed. And for small webcasters that were able to calculate royalties as a percentage of revenue in 2005 – that option was quashed by the CRB, so small webcasters’ royalties will grow exponentially!

Now pardon me for donning my stylish tinfoil chapeau here, but I think this more or less removes any and all doubt as to whether or not the CRB is, at least in its current iteration, anything more or less than one more pretty potted ficus decorating the lobby of the Ministry of Entertainment. Now, I’m not even going to bother posting links to examples of the myriad legally-and-philosophically questionable activities engaged in by Big Entertainment in the last few years (but always in the name of What’s Best for Music/Movies/[Insert Medium Here], of course). By now, you already have your opinions on the subject, so I’m not even going to waste the bandwidth. No, what I’d like to do instead is to congratulate the RIAA. Yep, you heard right. If I could arrange a face-to-face with Mitch Bainwol, I’d shake his hand. I really would. Why? Because, with the onslaught of the First Holy Crusade Against Darkest Internet, and for the first time since the filing of the initial wave of anti-P2P lawsuits, the RIAA have actually scored a clean hit. Think about it: No more mucking around with dubious interpretations of copyright law. No more quasi-admissible ‘driftnet’ litigation. In fact (they seem to say), fuck the law. Who needs the law when you have economics on your side?

Which brings me kicking and screaming up to the brink of the sprawling tarpit of perversity that is entertainment economics. For simplicity’s sake, let’s only consider only the musical branch of the entertainment industrial complex. Now, at the risk of rubber-stamping my age across my forehead, let me say that I do, in fact, remember days when music came into our homes and cars via radio. You remember radio, right? Like that big ol’ Silver Marshall hi-fi in Jerry Pridmore’s basement? The Top 40 scene was for your parents, but there was this bitchin’ FM station out of somewhere or other (Denver, maybe?) that played Zeppelin and Velvet Underground all night, and it sounded absolutely fucking amazing, especially after a couple of dips into the little plastic baggie Jerry kept hidden behind a loose brick by the freezer. Then you got older, and the little plastic baggie went away (probably because your mom found it after you went away to college), and the radio?

Well, the radio’s still there. Sort of. Except that now, instead of three or four stations across the dial, there’s ten, maybe more, depending on where you live. And guess what? They’re all playing the same dozen songs by the same half-dozen pop-royalty assclowns. And when the loud, grating, interminable commercials come on the air (which they do practically between songs now), you can forget switching to another station, because odds are good that there’s an ad running on the next one, too. Why? Because the ClearChannel Continuum sees all, that’s why. (By way of example: I live in the middle of nowhere. Without an external antenna, I can only reliably receive six or seven off-air broadcasts at my house. Of these, three were owned by ClearChannel last I checked. And that was a year ago.) Basically, the idea is that nothing is more unfair than for an advertising company to have to pay media outlets to distribute their ads, particularly when the distributer, not the advertiser, was going to have ultimate control over the audience. So ClearChannel, in what may well go down in history as one of the most brilliant strokes of marketing since the late-night infomercial, started buying out starving broadcast outfits. Enter present day, and, with nearly 1,200 outlets in the U.S. alone, an army of marketing weasels are not just guarding the henhouse, they’re living in the damned thing.

Ok, so radio’s become a ceaseless torrent of consumerist effluvia. Most people aren’t listening, anyway. They’ve got their iPods and their XMs (Oh, wait, ClearChannel owns that, too. Tee hee hee). But what is an enterprising wannabe-broadcaster to do? Enter the internet. Having taken a couple of economics classes in college, I like it already: Low-to-non-existent cost of entry, fucking enormous audience that spans all demographics, and little if any regulation. As a budding audio entrepreneur, I’m practically creaming my shorts. But as good as this sounds for me, imagine what it means for my friend–let’s call him Frank; his real name is Leo, but that’s not important–who’s just started a band. Frank’s playing the clubs and bars for now, mostly crappy covers, with the occasional original piece sneaked in once the clientele are to wasted to notice. But Frank has ambition. He wants fame. He wants global notoriety. He wants a wallet so overloaded with cash that its weight causes him severe chiropractic distress. Mostly, he wants a chance to play for an audience that isn’t on the other side of a floor-to-ceiling chain-link fence. What Frank needs, clearly, is some serious airtime. At my urging, then, let us assume that Frank bops on down the the local FM joint. The receptionist puts down her copy of Vogue long enough to hand Frank a questionnaire entitled: So You Want to be on the Radio?, which consists of two questions:

  • Is your target audience between the ages of 15 and 25, of homogenized American lineage,socially and politically inert, and possessed of a short attention span and vast swathes of disposable income?
  • Are you Mick Jagger?

(Note: If you answered ‘No’ to more than one of these questions, unfortunately commercial radio will be unable to accommodate you at this time.)

So when Frank comes home dispirited and all set to give up the band and fall back on his formal education as an electrical engineer to make a living, I’m able to brighten his day. “The internet,” I exclaim, “is the answer to all your problems.” I go on to explain that there are streaming-media services all over the place who’ll host his music for a very small fee, and that, thanks to a magical system of tubes, people all over the world will be able to get drunk and be bored by his music. Then Frank calls me an enormous tool and storms off, but we’ve always had a complex sort of relationship.

The point is that, as of May 15, it’s likely that none of that will be true anymore. Net radio is, or at least appears to be, eating its last meal. But why!? Wherein this bustling intellectual utopia of porn, pirated software, and terrifying, inscrutable social commentary lies the threat to Big Music? Some pundits cite an economic rationale. Essentially, the idea is that the fat profits lie with the handful of mass-marketable plastic faces churning out seemingly identical multi-platinums year after year, and not, as one might suspect, a heaving throng of up-and-coming ham-and-egg types peddling a few albums each. The internet, this rationale goes on to suggest, is a medium–the only medium, in fact–in which these nickel and dimers can shine through the halogen glare of pop stardom. In further point of fact, due to the alarming breadth of the audience reachable via the internet, the True Stars of the music world, deprived of their captive-market stranglehold, are at a significant disadvantage. Therefore, QED, the internet, at least insofar as it pertains to the distribution of music, must go.

Of course, for this rationale to be true, one must accept the existence of rationality, and I for one don’t see much. What I do see is the outlining of another theater in the ever-widening War on Media Terrorism. I’m not sure when this war started. I can’t pinpoint the day when it became an insurgent act to seek out end enjoy music (and movies, and…) on the terms we choose; when we would be harassed, persecuted, prosecuted for the deplorable crime of shirking our responsibility to provide the media industry with exponential profits irrespective of the quality of their product; when, in short, we, both individually as consumers and collectively as a consuming culture, would be punished for having the audacity not to conform to a fucking business plan.

Now, I mean all that in the absolute nicest possible way, I really do. And, certainly, I’m exaggerating for humorous effect. But there is a problem here. We’re being subjected to fiduciary whims borne of an insufferable air of corporate entitlement. Ordinary corporate entities leap through flaming hoops while playing the banjo to get profit margins where they want them. The RIAA wish to simply re-adjudicate, re-legislate, and re-engineer our society until we have no choice but to give them one. And if we let them do it, we deserve it. It’s long past time we took a step back and remembered one essential truth: the entertainment industry is a service industry. They exist solely to provide us, the consumer, with pleasing diversions. Period. End. Fin.

Let’s not let them forget that. Take a minute to look over the SaveNetRadio petition. Or, better yet, write your own letters. Or boycott. Or march in the streets. Or something. Just raise some hell, huh?

That used to be one of the things we did best.




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