Polishing the Brass

Judging from last week's Music Law Summit West, the future of the music biz is unclear but that's not what the RIAA wants you to think

Say it with me: The music industry is a collapsing model.

Given that the Music Law Summit was co-sponsored by the Future of Music Coalition, one assumes we got a glimpse at what that future looks like, right? Sort of. As evidenced by the dozens upon dozens of issues raised by the event's various panelists – from romantic notions of a "celestial jukebox" to practical ones like the future of contracts – that picture is as clear as mud. Like, really dirty mud. Which is to say that no one has any idea. There are, however, some signposts.

By now we all know about the success story that is iTunes and the future that that success points to: One day record stores like Amoeba will be more like antique shops run by crazy old people wearing green visors to whom you will pay 600 microcredits for a flat plastic doughnut that says "Linkin Park" on it for purely nostalgic reasons. Yes, it's pretty clear that digital downloading is where it's headed. But where does that leave the major labels? Will their bloated contracts, exploitative tactics, and homogeneous tastes be shut out of this future?

Not if the RIAA has its way. The one thing not up for debate is that the RIAA gets paid lots and lots of money by the major labels to saddle up next to members of Congress, the Senate, and the FCC – you know, those Beltway hipsters who write the laws that determine cash flow in intellectual-property industries like film and music. Most of those laws were written throughout the last century, pre-Internet, and they've evolved over the years to favor the labels, not the artists whose "intellectual property" they were designed to protect. And of course, artists and indie labels don't have an interest group like this on their side fighting back, because – surprise! – they can't afford it. This is not likely to change any time soon.

And what about the cult of the single, which the five wise men of Korn and so many others object to? Won't services like iTunes – the core belief of which could be characterized as "one song = $1" – only reinforce that ethos? And, wait a second, I forget: Does legal downloading net artists more money than conventional CD sales? Is it more fair, so to speak? Again, not if the RIAA can impose the antiquated payment structures it seeks to create in those emerging markets.

Napster created the explosion: "This shit doesn't have to cost so much," we all learned in unison. "Actually, it can be free." And what a great thing that was for music, because suddenly everyone was devouring it again and realizing that there's all this great stuff out there that the conventional distribution channels aren't telling you about. And you know what? You can even download it and remix it if you want, and share that remix with your friends, and – ooooh, the ideas we'll have, the fun, the passion we'll inject into this simple, simple concept: Music. Sharing. Communing. Sounds fruity and all, but that's how it was for a while.

The RIAA wants us to view that revolution as a colossal fuck-up, something that shouldn't have happened. It wants to convince us, the consumers, that we have sinned in downloading those songs for free, because their creators didn't get paid. But the fact is, those creators don't really get paid anyway, at least not in a fair, civilized way.

Pearlman's idea for skimming a little money off each iPod sale is a step in the right direction. We could, over time, devise a system by which musicians get the compensation they deserve; it's a matter of dismantling the old system and building a new and more equitable one – easier said than done, to be sure. But this revolution has opened the doors for us to do so. The RIAA wants to close those doors. We cannot let it.

Lawrence Lessig, author, Stanford law professor, and founder of Creative Commons (www.creativecommons.org) – if you're an artist, go there – was the summit's closing speaker. Lessig started off his speech with a fun fact about the beginnings of photography, when Louis Daguerre and George Eastman were engineering this strange new notion of "capturing" an image. When the technology was in its infancy, Congress actually debated whether it was legal for someone to "take" someone else's picture, whether the subject "owned" his likeness and therefore had the right to sell that likeness. Luckily for us, Congress realized it was fucking crazy to debate such a thing and decided not to pass laws restricting what you could and could not photograph. Before long, everyone was taking pictures. And soon industries sprang up around the selling of cameras, photo albums, nudie magazines, etc. In giving more freedom to more people, Congress promoted excitement for a form of creative expression, and eventually the money followed. A similar kind of freedom is what we – as both artists and consumers – must insist on as we move toward the future of music.

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