Random Acts of Outrage

by John McCutcheon

From The Folknik Sept/Oct 2000

Lots of stuff in the news these days about Napster, MP3, downloading "free" music and the end of music sales and the music industry, as we know it. Like every musician I know I'm asked my thoughts in every interview I do these days. Here are my two cents...

A number of years back I wrote an article in this newsletter concerning the practice of taping albums and disseminating them among one's friends. I feel now as I did then: it's stealing, plain and simple. Justify it all you want-there ain't no two ways around the fact that you're getting something that you didn't pay for. I'm sorry, I don't buy the "I'm previewing it and, if I like it, I'll go out and buy it." It hardly ever happens and that's not why people do it.

Now, that being said, downloading music that's posted to the WWW introduces a couple of interesting differences. First, if the artist posts the music (as I've done on my MP3 page) for the purpose of disseminating it, then the stakes are different. Topical music, for instance, has a short shelf life, and the urgency of getting it out there finds a perfect match in WWW-based downloading. Second, if the music is uploaded by people for other folks interested in merely using the latest technology to do the old tape-dubbing scam, then I stand by my earlier judgment. Plus, you get what you pay for. Current MP3 downloads sound lousy compared to a CD. Granted, the technology will improve to be competitive but, for now, it stinks.

Finally, the artist and the public are the imperative relationship here. "The end of the music industry as we know it?" Can't happen fast enough for me. Record companies have stolen more money from musicians than a downloading public could ever dream of. The independents are only slightly less culpable than the majors.

While I do believe that a record companyxand, certainly, all the employees that work thereinxcan and do perform valuable work, as market forces eliminate variety and choice from the store shelves, as corporate chains force local businesses under and as radio recycles the same crap over and over I say: let the new paradigm begin! The Internet provides a kind of democracy that gives the public a forum to demand responsiveness from musicians and places for those artists who don't fit into the industry model a place to go directly to their potential audience.

Now, all that being said, let me add a few closing thoughts. If the downloading public expects that it will receive all its music for free, then it is fantasizing. A compact between musicians and music lovers for respecting, honoring, and compensating worthy music must be a given in any civilized society, virtual or not.

I do lament the notion of those "special" cuts on an album being ignored in favor of the known "hits." Every musician writes and/or records songs they know have limited but powerful appeal on each album. Every listener has discovered such gems. It takes the ability to join faith and adventure, on both parts. And, finally, all economics must be, as Tip O'Neill once said of politics, local. As the chains come in, be they Wal-Mart or Borders, and offer recordings at discounted rates with a latte on the side (or a slurpy in Wal-Mart's case), remember the local stores, the local radio stations, the local alternative press that nurtured this music, that featured it before the chains did. As the ways in which we bring music into our homes and lives change, let us remember that the WWW is only virtual reality. There's real flesh and blood behind the local musicians, the local storefronts and the local airwaves that provide a service that you won't find on-line. Different, indispensable. One need not eliminate the other. I'm not waxing nostalgic here; I'm talking about community life. Using that as a guidepost, perhaps our attitudes toward how we obtain our music can develop more humanely.

Reprinted from Appalseed Production, John's newsletter, with permission

John's Web site is http://www.folkmusic.com

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