MP3: It's Only Rock and Roll and The Kids Are Alright
The MP3 movement is a rational revolt of passionate fans. Compact discs cost too much. Mainstream radio is vanilla and corrupt. MTV has almost given up on showing music videos. Cutting-edge fans want the newest, coolest music as fast as possible. So they share music and tips about it where they find each other--over the Internet. When I was a kid, we traded free music where we found each other--clubs, coffeehouses, basements, high school cafeterias. Music fans today have found a better way. Their new music communities are more vibrant, more likely to get recorded well and distributed quickly, potentially empowered to control their commercial destinies, and more likely to make a difference than forgotten bands of my youth like the Damned or the True Believers.
The free-music strategy is, for lack of a better term, the Grateful Dead business model: Give away music to build a loyal following, establish a brand name and then charge handsomely for the total entertainment package. Whole creative movements have established themselves through this process of community building. In the late seventies, downtown New York punk fans found one another and discussed emerging artists through the handmade fanzines given away at the few clubs willing to host punk shows. At the same time, uptown in the Bronx, the hip-hop movement was spreading through a network of fans who would copy and lend tapes of artists like Grandmaster Flash and Kurtis Blow. Free music has always been essential to the discursive communities that fuel the creative process. These days, some small music labels such as emusic.com and Chuck D's Rapstation.com are experimenting with "value-added" and "gatekeeper" business models, with modest taxation on consumers and artists (and thus modest profit potential). They depend on open systems, like the Internet itself, to foster creativity and "buzz" about their products and services.
MP3 offers a wonderful opportunity for emerging artists, the very people copyright law is constitutionally charged to encourage and aid. Because the established music industry narrows the pipelines of production and distribution, manufacturing scarcity, established artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre profit best from the old system.
Major music labels perform four basic tasks: production, distribution, price-fixing and gatekeeping. If bands use their home computers to record, mix and edit their music, put up their own websites or contract with Emusic.com, and charge $1 per song for MP3 downloads, they can evade the high costs of relying on major record companies. Production and distribution don't seem so hard anymore. And the major record companies have just been exposed as oligopolistic price-fixers, while they've been at it: In May, five top labels settled with the Federal Trade Commission over antitrust charges. It turns out they have been collaborating to keep CD prices $5 higher than they could be, defrauding fans (including Metallica's) of $480 million over the past four years.
The gatekeeping function of record companies may be the most important (and bears some similarity to what's happening in the book-publishing world at the moment). How does a band get noticed amid the noise and flash of our media-saturated world? MCA anoints a band by scouting it, signing it and developing it. These labels can get a song played on radio or MTV (but not always). Tiny Pravda Records out of Chicago probably can't. A truly independent artist with her own label, like Ani DiFranco, has to rely on fan communities. As MP3s proliferate and the web replaces radio as the place to taste new music, DiFranco will be the pioneer whom new artists will emulate. Ani DiFranco's fans have set up more than a dozen web pages with photos, biographical information, tour information, e-mail list subscriptions and MP3 files available. DiFranco's record label, Righteous Babe, does not have its own site yet. Her fans do her marketing and gatekeeping for her.
A signal trait of this new technology, then, is that it offers the ability to evade the professional gatekeepers, flattening the production and distribution pyramid. MP3 is only rock and roll. It's the production and distribution equivalent of the three-chord garage band, made possible by cheap electric guitars and amplifiers. And like rock and roll, anyone can do it, and probably will. This scares the hell out of those who profit from cultural control.