Danger Mouse Week – Day 1: The New Music Industry

To celebrate the upcoming release of the new 33 1/3 on Danger Mouse, author Charles Fairchild discusses five key dynamics responsible for The Grey Album for Danger Mouse Week.

One of the underlying themes of the book on The Grey Album is to try to make some sense of what has happened to the music industry over last ten years or so. While a decade is at best an arbitrary measure of change over time, it still helps. My point is to understand the context into which this album entered and then to try to understand why Danger Mouse and those distributing his work were legally threatened over it. After all, that ‘cease-and-desist’ letter was a real career boost for him. Further, the fact that this album was universally regarded as a work of art very possibly covered under the fair use provisions of US law stoked a lot of the anger over the attempt to get it removed from the public arena.

Obviously the changes to the music industry have been significant and we can easily get a very clear sense of their scope through a short passage taken from a piece in the Best Music Writing compilation from 2001. The journalist, Carly Carioli of the Boston Phoenix describes a visit to that most cutting of turn-of-the-century edges, a college dorm room wired up to the internet, this one occupied by her sister Tia and her roommate:

By the time I visited Tia, she and her roommate already about 700 songs stored on her hard drive. In the form of MP3s: condensed, bite-sized morsels that provide a reasonable facsimile of CD-quality sound in the form of files small enough to travel quickly over the Web. More than a dozen MP3 players can be found to download from the Web, many of the free–Tia’s pops up on her screen looking like a digitized care stereo. Or, with a few key strokes, you can use your MP3 player to decode the MP3 files and burn them onto blank CDs, in which case you have essentially set up your own miniature CD-pressing plant. Tia played me a couple of songs from her hard drive: something new by Yo La Tengo and a Dirty Three song. Then she played me the same two songs, which she’d burned onto a CD, this time through her shelftop stereo: the difference in sound quality was to my ears minimal.  There’s also software to reverse the process: she can stick the new Belle & Sebastian disc in her computer’s CD drive and, using a program called Adaptec, have it converted or ‘ripped,’ into MP3 form–at which point there’s nothing to stop her from sharing it with the rest of the planet.

This telling passage captures a moment in the not too distant past when these issues were so foreign that the presumably switched-on readers of an alternative news weekly had to have this sort of stuff explained to them like they were ten.

More importantly, think about the kinds of change this writer was unwittingly chronicling for us, the things that might be most relevant to us looking back. We can look back on this and happily note that data storage has become either very cheap or entirely free, the range and cost of music software and hardware has simply become part of buying a computer, processing and bandwidth speeds continue to increase and access to the internet has become both immediate ubiquitous for those who can pay for it.

Once this was the stuff of revolutions. A full generation of tech experts and prognosticators told us without flinching that the world would become increasingly ‘level’ as Twitter and Facebook spurred liberating social movements and crowdfunding became the million dollar norm. Now, sadly, we are haunted by a whole host of claims as to what the future world of music was supposed be like. Instead, an impressive range of those thought to be the carriers of that glorious future arrived with great fanfare and then collapsed or were legally hobbled by the usual suspects. The roll call of the dearly departed is long: Limewire, Grokster,, imeem, MySpace, Kazaa, Urge, Audio Galaxy, and many, many more.

Despite the momentous changes to the making, distributing and consuming of music over the last decade, there have been a few key things which haven’t changed all that much. Not surprisingly, these areas of relative stability haven’t received as much attention as the impending revolution.

The music industry is still dominated by a very small number of companies, they’re just a different collection of companies than they used to be. And it’s the computer behemoths that have the leverage. That leverage is us with our phones and tablets opening up a portable, direct and constantly available path to our attention.

Google, Apple and Facebook seem just as thrilled as the ‘old’ music industry when they too get to screw musicians and audiences, all while compiling astonishing collections of data on everything we do and definitively shaping how most of us connect to one another.

Interestingly, the music industry was working out the shape of the new digital economy in music well before most people realize. Here is a little gem I found in Billboard. It dates from 2001:

Attorney Jay Rosenthal says that, as more contracts are being drawn in the Internet age, lawyers working on behalf of the labels have come up with more rigid and unavoidable contract clauses to hold against artists. “There are a lot more contracts to compare to now, so a standard is being created and there is less room to maneuver.” The norm has been that, with new technology, the labels try to pay the artist less. It is a strategy that saved the majors millions when CDs were introduced nearly 20 years ago. But [Recording Artists Coalition executive director Noah] Stone says artists have also complained to him that they have been under increasing pressure. “With the bigger artists, [the labels don’t have] the same power to cut down the rate, but at the same time the labels are trying to get more control.” ‘ (Saxe, Frank. ‘Radio, record labels chafe over streaming.’ Billboard 113(21): 1, 2001.)

Just to provide some perspective on this, the following is a brief list of things that didn’t exist on the day this article was published: Facebook, Twitter, iPods, iPads, iPhones, YouTube. Remember the music industry was supposed to have been well behind the curve in failing to adapt to the glorious new world on offer. Clearly, they were ahead the pack when it counted.

Ten years ago the conflicts that brought The Grey Album to prominence and protest seemed almost existential in scope. We can see more clearly now that these conflicts were less the stirrings of a revolution and more a comparatively brief layover in a much longer and larger fight over the ways in which we find, enjoy and make meaning from music. The fights haven’t stopped and the world of the ‘new’ capitalism churns on, a world of mobile capital, immobile labor, excessive debt, increasing poverty, extraordinary wealth, and constant surveillance. So far it still seems to be getting the job done. More’s the pity. – Charles Fairchild

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