SIGHTS & SOUNDS/Rob Patterson

The Music Business Opens A Second Front

The major record companies seem to be going totally wacko and even warlike these days. Knocked off kilter by a digital revolution that they could have ridden at the head of, proudly waving fluttering flags of greenbacks, they seem to be moving more and more in spiritual lockstep with the pugnacious tenor of these American times.

In a move that almost mirrors the screw-you foreign policy of the Bush bunch, they've been developing weapons of digital destruction to possibly wage war with file traders instead of winning the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of billions of music fans worldwide. Hunkered in the bunker, the music majors keep throwing salvos at people who obviously have a ravenous appetite for music, i.e. their target market. And it's a campaign that's ultimately as useless as raising an umbrella against a tsunami. Or more simply put, a good decade into the blossoming of the Age of Internet, the music majors still don't have a clue about how to even flip the switch of the computerized world to their advantage.

It's hard to feel pity for such dunderheads. This is after all an industry that makes its nut so well on the 10% or so of its releases that go large that it pays for the other 90% that tank. If they were selling shoes at the same (lack of) success ratio, the music majors would have been dead meat long ago. Yet in recent months a stink of rancidity has been seeping from within the biz as if the majors have some sort of perverse death wish.

The latest offense, following a bully-boy campaign of threatening interest providers and major universities as well as suing their students, bears all the dimwitted deviousness of a G. Gordon Liddy intelligence operation. As recently revealed by the Sunday New York Times, page one, section one, top of the fold, the majors -- apt name, isn't it? -- have been quietly funding "software bullets" to fire against the pirates with all the high-tech heft of a missile and bomb raid on Baghdad.

The more benign of these programs include Trojan horses inserted into file sharing programs to redirect surfers to paid music sites. Of course, if the majors had put such effort into developing efficient and cost-effective paid digital delivery systems when the future came knocking at their door, begging for content, such services might already exist to even woo consumers. But they still don't.

Other programs these Pentagonian majors have funded even more egregiously reflect their lunkheaded siege mentality: freezing traders' computers, wiping pirated songs off their hard drives, and even practicing tactical "interdictions" on connections being used to nick music files. As in Iraq, such deployments would no doubt cause friendly fire and civilian casualties. But this is now a war for the majors. Alas, it's one waged on the very consumers that have been and could still be paying the freight of a business that is all but fossilized in its approach to promoting, marketing and selling music.

Yes, file sharing in the end also robs the creators of the music. And that, to any aesthete, should be a high crime. (Then again, the majors have been doing it to their artists for decades.) But as someone who on principle has never downloaded or file traded songs -- my high-mindedness is albeit abetted by being a Mac user -- I get a glee from the vision of those billions of pilfered musical bytes zipping through cyberspace as music consumers loot the majors. And the record companies have brought this Armageddon on themselves by their arrogance, smug laziness, and nearly blind lack of business vision.

(Full disclosure: this once avid album buyer also cracked the free music game in an earlier industrial age by becoming a music reviewer who gets promo albums in the mail. And some of them suck so badly they aren't worth listening to, much less purchasing. But that's another rant for another issue.)

At the same time as the majors ready their next possible blast towards the enemies at their gate, the new Apple iMusic site sold a million songs in its first week, proving that music consumers are hungry enough for online music to pay the tariff. People want music on the Internet; if they can't buy it, they'll take it. And some surveys contend that downloading and file sharing can actually stimulate sales. It's exposure, baby, that big spark for the hype machine, and a sorely needed avenue in these times of (un)Clear Channel radio consolidation.

What next? Will the record business turn to its gangsta roots, when Uncle Heshie called in his paisano partners to bash some kneecaps? Naw. Even in those days, the record men had some savvy. Now they stand guard at the door of the record store, armed and ready to blast away the next shoplifter with the jittery trigger fingers of the scared and confused. They have seen the enemy, but -- whoops! -- it happens to be their own customers. And when the smoke clears, the major record labels could well be the ones wounded if not felled by the blowback from their scattershot aim.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

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