Friday, May 13, 2016

Music distribution - no more "buggy whips"

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, music, digital music, copyright, law enforcement, paradigm shifts

Nearly twenty years ago I was introduced to Limewire by a friend. While he was rabidly downloading all the songs of his favorite bands—and thus committing "music piracy"—I had no interest in anything contemporary. I have little interest in music composed after about 1910. I felt lucky to find digitizations with pretty good quality of very early recordings of Western, Country and Western Swing music, and downloaded a pretty good collection of that. Whatever wasn't already in the public domain at the time, probably is by now.

After a safety lecture I attended a police detective was asked how the police decide which laws to enforce. A major point in the following discussion was that a law cannot be enforced unless the rate of voluntary compliance is at least 85%. In the realm of traffic control, we find that stop signs and stop lights are obeyed at levels exceeding 95%, in most places, anyway; but speed laws are so routinely flouted by so many drivers that the "effective speed limit" is between five and twenty miles above the posted speed. I know that on those sections of I-95 north of Baltimore that are posted 55 MPH, to drive slower than 70 is to risk being rear-ended. I have been driving along there at about 70, and been passed by traffic, including state police vehicles, that must have been going over 80!

What do you do when the majority of folks flout a law? Eventually it is either changed or becomes ignored. This can take time—the "noble experiment" of alcohol Prohibition lasted 13 years—but the result is inevitable. Society will pass through a painful period during which many "pioneers" wind up with figurative arrows stuck in them. Then a shift occurs, and soon enough the law enforcement establishment finds itself with something more pressing to do. Whether the now outdated laws remain on the books becomes moot (Prohibition was an exception: having been enacted by Constitutional Amendment, it had to be similarly repealed).

Prior to about 1960, duplication of musical media was difficult and expensive, so people bought "records": 78's, 45's and 33's. The invention of the cassette tape recorder initiated a low level of "music piracy", and as the machines got better and cheaper, the practice became more widespread. But then 1982 happened. Music went digital, and the first commercial CD was pressed. That same year a friend of mine bought one of the first (and rather costly!) portable CD players, and let me listen to a classical selection with his ear buds (also a rather new product). It was astounding! Compelling audio, completely free of hiss, pops and other artifacts of even the best 33-1/3 RPM platters.

Once anything is in digital form it can be reproduced exactly. Many tape cassette recorders of 1982 were very good, but a copy of a copy of a copy was clearly inferior, and the music industry had very expensive machinery to play master tapes into platter-making machinery that did not degrade the precious master, even after it was used many times. Think about it; how do you make a million copies of an analog (LP) album?

No need to go further. Using analog media degrades the media. Using digital media may also degrade the media, but before it is too far gone, you can make a perfect copy and just keep going. Once audio and then video went digital, it became apparent that the physical medium, the CD and later the DVD, was just the "camel" to carry the musical "cargo". If your cargo is so light you don't need camels any more, then what?

"Then What" is ably and aptly described in How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt. He chronicles the shift in music distribution over the period from about 1985 to 2005, twenty years that produced a generation that thinks of music as "free", but who revere musical performances and will spend as much to see a concert as football buffs spend to attend a Superbowl.

The invention of digital music recording and playback made the "record" industry obsolete, but the CD industry that replaced it lasted only about as long as Prohibition. While CD's continue to be made, they are a tiny market compared to the distribution of music and video without the "camel". And most of that distribution is free, or nearly so. Stephen Witt's book shows how it happened, following the lives of three significant people, and their associates.

They are like the three jaws of a lathe chuck. Seemingly independent, they worked together, unknowingly, to clamp down on music-as-it-was and replace it with something entirely new.
Jaw 1: MP3 encoding of sound. Protagonist: Karlheinz Brandenburg. Impact: Digital sound files around 1/12 the size of the "source", CD-encoded audio, making audio files practically free, if not legally free.
Jaw 2: The destruction of the "camel". Patsy-then-Protagonist: Doug Morris. Impact: As the richest music promoter, cornered the market on Rap (more than once), led portions of the legal battle against "music piracy", then flopped the entire industry from disc-supported to ad-supported (the YouTube model).
Jaw 3: The mega-pirates who became more capable distributors than "the industry". Protagonist: Dell Glover, one of the few pirates who actually profited from illegal distribution. Impact: His insider position enabled him to release the music from Doug Morris's stable of artists one to three weeks ahead of the official schedule, via an organization called the Scene, partly helmed by "Kali".
The first "cutting tool" of the lathe was the legal establishment, from the Justice Department and FBI in the US to similar agencies worldwide (mainly in the West). Once the well-heeled music industry began to cry foul, they worked for years to pierce the veils shrouding the established pirates. Publicly targeting musical consumers, the "downloaders" backfired, but they eventually caught up with the leaders of the various major pirate networks. Their efforts amounted to nailing the barn door firmly shut after all the horses had fled…and had built new and better barns! The second "cutting tool" was the public, including juries that in a few cases declined to render a guilty verdict, but even more the millions who found it unreasonable to spend as much as a dollar per song to record music. Soon enough, they found a new place to spend the money thus freed up: Mega-concerts, the more extreme the better.

Though the book reads as smoothly as a novel, it is a work of crack journalism. You might either love or hate any of these three men, or their associates. Each played his part (yes, "his"; the number of women involved can be counted on the thumbs of both your feet). The protagonists of Jaw 1 and Jaw 2 got rich; Jaw 3 did well enough until being passed through the meat grinder himself; he escaped with his life, and made peace with life in a new kind of world.

FYI: Under current law in the US, copyrighted work is protected for fifty years after the death of the performer or creator, if a person, or 75 years after the death of the person (or the last person, if a group such as the Beatles) when the copyright is assigned to a corporation. So if your favorite composer or performer died before 1921, no matter who held the copyright, it is now voided, in the US. In some other countries, the term is quite a bit longer.

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