Ransom Notes

Can one man convince millions of people to pay for their "free" music?

Stone envisions a future in which users will be able to go to a single Web site -- or, more realistically, dozens of competing sites -- that will charge customers to download albums or single songs. According to Stone's plan, these sites will be no different than the corner record store: You log on, browse the digital bins, pay for what you want, and have instant access to your purchases; consumer and creator will be satisfied. No longer will you have to pay $17.99 for a disc that cost no more than six bucks to manufacture and distribute and contains only a single song you want. And, even better, artists (both performers and songwriters) will continue to receive royalties.

"You should have the same experience at as you do at the brick-and-mortar Tower Records down the street," Stone insists. "You can go to one place and find allmusic. It can't be divided by label; it's too confusing. There should be one place you go, or a series of places that are competing. It would be like CDNow, but instantaneous. That's really the solution."

To Stone, an online music store with instant downloading capabilities is a more than fair resolution to what has been a bloody legal battle. But the genie is out of the bottle; indeed, writes Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Perry Barlow in the October issue of Wired, no longer is there a bottle. "There will be no property in cyberspace," Barlow insists, concluding that "for ideas, fame isfortune, and nothing makes you famous faster than an audience willing to distribute your work for free." Musicians might disagree, especially those who struggle to make a living by selling a few thousand CDs. Young comers live and die by CD sales; they cannot and will not make their money on the road, playing for dozens and sleeping on couches and paying for a van that breaks down halfway between Here and Nowhere. The music might beg to be free, as file-sharers insist, but clothes and rent and food do not.

Stone must convince consumers of that, and it will not be so easy: About 38 million people have used Napster, and even the RIAA admits that CD sales were up during the first half of 2000. The industry, quite simply, is having a hard time showing that Napster is cutting into revenues. But Stone is undaunted: In the next couple of weeks, he expects to announce the AAP's board of directors, which likely will include some artists affiliated with his organization. They will set policy for the organization, which for a year has struggled to make a name for itself under Stone's leadership.

Stone eventually would like to see AAP act as something of a musician's union (though he hesitates to use the word), with the bigger names looking out for the smaller artists when it comes time to negotiate new contracts. It will be a damned near impossible task, as musicians are far more likely to band together for a benefit concert for children with acne than they are for themselves. Garth looks after Garth, and it's everyone else for themselves. Cyberspace has nothing to do with it. In the music business, business comes first, last, and always.

"What I would really like to build in the long run is something resembling a trade group for artists, and I'm willing to do it full time," says Stone, who released an album in 1995 and has since put his songwriting and performing on the way-back burner. He doubts he will ever return to it, at least for protracted periods. "I'm willing to see it through to the end. It's not going to be easy, and it's more likely I will fail than succeed, but it won't be because I didn't try very hard."

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