Archive for Sunday, November 5, 2000

It’s music, but it’s also business

November 5, 2000

Advertisement

Stop the presses: The war's over. And anyone surprised by the outcome probably thinks Ralph Nader is going to be elected president Tuesday. In a landslide.

The rest of us know better. Heck, you could see it coming a mile away. The brick defeated the plate glass window, the windshield defeated the bug and the music industry just defeated Napster.

Was there ever any doubt? Threatened by an Internet service that allowed free music downloads on a massive scale, the industry unleashed lawyers like junkyard dogs. Now Napster and Bertelsmann AG, one of the five major music conglomerates, have settled. Napster has agreed to abandon its "free music" policy and begin charging users a subscription fee. Bertelsmann also gets a financial stake in Napster.

It's the beginning of the end for so-called "free" music. And Napsterians are, to put it mildly, unhappy. Check their opinions on Internet bulletin boards and you find disgust toward the music industry mixed with a naivete that's almost painful.

"Music," writes one, "is not something which should be copyrighted and sold and still owned by the musician."

"Music should be free for all," says another.

Ahem. Beg pardon, guys, but if no one pays for music, what, pray tell, will the people who make music pay their bills with? Fan worship? ("Yes, I'm calling about my phone bill? I can't pay it, but I was wondering if you'd take this fan worship instead. Hello? HELLO?")

I don't think so.

Still, I'm hesitant to come down too hard on the proponents of free music. In the first place, I spent 18 years covering the music business, and no one finds it more disgusting than me. For the average artist, the industry is nonstop exploitation, a relationship not unlike that of the sharecropper and the landowner or the prostitute and the pimp. In the second place, it's perversely amusing to see Napster opponents like the rapper Dr. Dre and the rock group Metallica, guys who've made millions masquerading as juvenile delinquents, unmasked as businessmen in their 30s, eager to protect the bottom line.

But the main reason I'm hesitant to deal harshly with idealistic young people who live for music is the simple fact that I used to be one.

As a teen-ager, I once had a job making a princely $29 every two weeks and spent every dime of it on music. I used to interrogate record store managers to find out the date and hour they'd be receiving this or that release. Pored over each new issue of SOUL Magazine like a Talmudic scholar.

When you're that age, it's about more than being a fan, more than loving a song. It's a sense that something of your own life has been caught, a sense that music has somehow transfigured to words, melody and rhythm those nagging feelings between feelings and doubts beneath bravado.

I know that feeling. Give me the right song in the right moment and I still "FEEL" that feeling. But some years have intervened, some understanding has come and I can tell you that, feelings aside, music is, in many ways, an industry like any other. It has union issues, unemployment concerns, manufacturing and distribution problems.

If you never thought about that, chances are, you also never thought about this: Art, for all its other virtues, is a commodity. Commodities are bought and sold every day, their prices fixed by variables of supply and demand. And to take a commodity without paying for it is theft, pure and simple.

Hey, I love music. Love Billie and Bruce, Gladys and Macy. And the Tempts. Can't forget the Tempts.

I love music, but ... it's a business. ... One day I saw this guy performing on stage, making 5,000 people clap. Another day I saw him waiting for a bus.

I love music, but I have no illusions about it. It's a business, and a hard one at that. One day I saw this guy performing on stage, making 5,000 people clap and scream. Another day I saw him waiting for a bus.

So those people who are OK with stealing from a rich and morally bankrupt industry should remember something: They're also stealing from him.




Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.