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Riff Raff 

Wednesday, Mar 10 1999
So Chuck D and About 100 Lawyers Walk Into This Bar ... In the near future, says CEO David Samuel, you'll be able to download the entire catalog of a single artist for a flat fee -- say, $200 for every Natalie Merchant song ever recorded. (Presumably, that price doesn't include the cost of the rope you'll need to hang yourself with after you're done listening to it all.)

Samuel's claim was just one of many ambitious statements made at a lengthy -- and sometimes cantankerous -- panel discussion on March 4 presented by the Sports and Entertainment Law Section of the Bar Association of San Francisco. Titled "How Soon Is Now? Cutting Edge Issues for the Digital Music Revolution," the panel included presidents of Bay Area downloadable-music companies (Samuel, Audio Explosion's Arnold E. Brown, and IUMA's Jeff Patterson), music industry folk (Recording Industry Association of America associate counsel Matt Oppenheim and ASCAP VP of Repertory Ron Sobel), and Public Enemy frontman Chuck D, who's been a leading booster of music distribution over the Internet -- doubly so since his label, PolyGram, forced the band to remove MP3 files from its Web site late last year. Chuck D brought the star power to the meeting, but the most entertaining aspect was watching Matt Oppenheim fidget.

You see, for those who believe that MP3 and other Internet-based music formats are the next wave of music distribution, Oppenheim represents The Enemy. In October, the RIAA filed suit against Diamond Multimedia to put a stop on sales of the Diamond Rio, the $200 Walkman-esque device that allows users to listen to MP3 files away from their computers; a temporary restraining order was reversed, although the suit is still ongoing. The RIAA is behind the Secure Digital Music Initiative, a plan announced in December by a collection -- some say collusion -- of record industry execs to create a system whereby musicians are properly paid for every music download a listener makes.

In his opening remarks, Oppenheim owned up to all of this and took pains to emphasize that the RIAA is not "anti-technology or anti-MP3," which didn't prevent quiet hissing from some folks in the $50-a-seat audience -- mostly lawyers, though a few professional and amateur MP3 boosters were sprinkled in. Trying to stem the flow of ill will, Oppenheim asked if anybody in the audience had a Diamond Rio present. After one person proudly hoisted his in the air, Oppenheim quipped, "Can I get your name and phone number?"

That got him the only laugh of the afternoon. By the time the floor was opened for questions, the bitterness had resurfaced. One person said angrily that the RIAA has "got to come to grips with the fact that they're slowing down artists," and also claimed that the RIAA was be-hind the 1993 move to squelch used CD sales. (That year, Wherehouse sued four major distributors for withholding ad money for stores that sell used CDs, claiming a conspiracy "through or in conjunction with the Recording Industry Association of America," though the RIAA wasn't named as a defendant. By the end of the year, the distributors had backed off.)

All of which is to say that nobody knows what the Internet music world is going to look like, either by the end of this year or 10 years from now: what systems we will use to listen to music online; how we'll pay for music; how record companies and publishers will police distribution; and how artists will utilize the technology.

ASCAP's Ron Sobel says we'll move "away from ownership and into access" -- listeners will dispense with tactile CDs in favor of getting their favorite music stored on their hard drives; Chuck D, for his part, plans to create an online broadcast site, Rappstation, as well as a Web site for album sales, selling EPs of five songs for $3 to $5 a pop. In his vision, artists will retain their rights to online distribution of their music, selling it or giving it away as they choose. Labels will be able to sell records as they currently do, though he says that the days of "picking up a bunch of plastic" may be ending. "There's nothing romantic about going to Tower," he exclaimed.

IUMA's Jeff Patterson believes we'll adopt a subscription model, in which users will pay a flat fee to download a certain amount of music per month. Referring to his company's "Music Online Future" report released last year, he said that when consumers were asked if they found such a system appealing, they answered, "Yes." Which isn't precisely true. As we reported earlier (Dec. 16), over half of IUMA's survey respondents had a "low" or "very low" interest in a subscription service.

Of course, that was back in December -- and at the pace at which the Internet moves, we may be living in a culture desperate to download whatever Celine Dion and Garth Brooks are puking up by Christmas, which is when the Secure Digital Music Initiative is slated to be fully functional. We'll keep you posted. (Mark Athitakis)

Shut 'Em Down On the heels of Beanbenders' recent eviction from its Berkeley space, another Bay Area improvised music venue is about to get the ax. The Mission's Sweat Shop, under pressure from its landlords to stop its crazy racket (and we mean that in the nicest way possible), will stage its last show on Saturday, March 27. The space had been holding concerts by local, national, and international jazz and experimental musicians since January of 1998, and the impending closure leaves downtown's Luggage Store as the only local venue devoting itself to a weekly series of improvised music.

Sweat Shop co-organizer Eli Crews is disheartened, but not exactly surprised. Working in a Mission storefront without any permits, and dealing with regular complaints from residents in the hotel upstairs -- as well as the occasional SFPD visit -- he's impressed it's gone on this long. "It's disappointing that we have to stop," says Crews, "and it's disappointing that there's no venues really, but it's pretty incredible that we could do this for a year, in a semi-illegal space, and get away with it."

Crews and compatriot Oran Canfield have no immediate plans to start a new series or find a space, although local improv organizers and musicians are talking about combining forces to look into other options. "We're pretty burned out on doing a weekly series," Crews says. "It's time to recuperate." (M.A.)

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to, or mail it to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

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Mark Athitakis


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