Don’t Touch that Attitude Dial

Julia pointed me to Courtney Love's recent rant about technology and the music industry, which she compares to sharecropping. It's a brilliant, incisive, infuriating essay, and it's just rewritten a lot of my thinking about Napster, new media, and the future of our copyright system. Her first absolutely wonderful point is that there are plenty of artists, all sorts of big names among them, who are being so systematically exploited by the record companies that they have almost nothing to lose by embracing Napster and Gnutella, no matter how corrosive the effects on sales. And starting from this claim (and the terrifying facts about music-industry economics that back it up), she issues a call to arms -- for musicians to show some labor solidarity and use these dangerous new technologies to end-run the horrible deals the major labels offer them -- that has me just about ready to go out and start smashing some serious guitar, Jimi-style.

On some of this stuff, I'm skeptical, especially about the liklihood for genuine, systematic change. I think the MTV age has fairly conclusively shown that the great majority of major rock musicians are morons; the major labels aren't going to have trouble luring in new victims with the usual sex-and-drugs bait-and-switch tactics. By the time they're savvy enough to understand just how screwed they are by their recording contract, they've already done their time and cranked out their one-hit wonder singles, and their bloated carcasses can easily be dropped out of a helicopter several miles out at sea. Not all musicians are this dumb (and the industry does tend to self-select for the dumb ones to be crowned its multi-platinum superstars), but you only need one exploitable band (and a small army of marketing whizzes) to make a fistful of money.

Love's second wonderful point (partly implicit), though, is for the genuine feasibility of a model in which bands that just need to survive might actually do so through more direct fan-contact and a flow of music that doesn't go through the record-company "gatekeepers," whether or not their more "commercial" brethren have shaken themselves free of the major labels. If music becomes cheaper, Hole's survival isn't so tied to the death of the Backstreet Boys, say. Again, I'm skeptical, but not as much as I used to be. I've been listening to web radio at work, mostly college radio stations playing free-form commercial-free music. And when I hear something I like, I listen for a snatch of the lyrics. Quick as a wink, I zip over to Altavista, type in the phrase, and hit go. Some fan's lyrics page comes up and bingo, I have a band name and song title. A quick spin by Amazon (or the band's own site, if they have one, and many do), and there you go: I've just discovered some music that's genuinely new to me. Haven't bought anything yet this way, but these have been informed decisions: I just didn't like what I heard when I tried other clips from the album. I hope nobody will fault me for not buying music that I don't like; it feels somehow more acceptable than not buying music because I have no idea it exists.

I don't know where things are going. Love has some ideas, some of which I agree with and some of which I don't. But reading her rant, I can't easily tell which parts are the ones I find compelling and which parts are the ones that leave me cold: the rightness and the wrongness are closely intermixed. The force of her argument is sufficiently beyond the weak back-and-forth that passes for most of the current public discourse on the future of media technology that instant judgements are not readily available. Ignore at your own risk.

I also wonder about how these debates will ramify in other parts of the music world. The balance of power in classical music, for example, is rather different from that in rock music. Symphony orchestras are large organizations, with many mouths to feed, and "studio time" means something very different to an orchestra than it does to a concert pianist or a singer-songwriter. The whole promotional system (for non-"crossover" albums, that is) is also a horse of a different color, one in which the review magazines play a fascinating filtering-and-promotional role. The reviews in Rolling Stone and the reviews in Gramophone are animals of two rather different species. Also of note is that MP3, the format "responsible" for this whole amusing mess on the rock side of things, is positively awful for listening to classical music. We shall see how things shake out. We shall see, and hopefully we may even have some influence on the shaking.