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Power to Stifle: the perversion of music by the music industry

Guest endymion

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Guest endymion

In his book Free Culture, noted intellectual property attorney and futurist Lawrence Lessig tells the story of the inventor of FM radio.

In 1935, there were about a thousand radio stations across the US that were all using the current state of the art in broadcasting: AM radio. The receivers of AM radio broadcasts are very simple but they are susceptible to static and interference as lightning and other types of noise add to the radio station's signal.

An inventor named Edwin Howard Armstrong saw a new way forward. He was awarded the first patents for his new FM radio technology in 1935, and in 1936 he gave a demonstration of a prototype to a group of fellow radio engineers gathered at the top of the Empire State Building in New York City. The transmitter was in faraway Yonkers, further than any AM radio station could reach.

The audience, unaware of even the possibility of transmitting music over radio with clarity, was shocked at the demonstration:

A glass of water was poured before the microphone in Yonkers; it sounded like a glass of water being poured....A paper was crumpled and torn;it sounded like paper and not like a crackling forest fire....Sousa marches were played from records and a piano solo and guitar number were performed....The music was projected with a live-ness rarely if ever heard before from a radio “music box.

Armstrong had a vision for a new direction in broadcasting. He saw a possible future where broadcasting served people better by doing a better job of carrying music. His FM radio invention could carry music more clearly and it could carry it over much longer distances than AM radio. The radio engineers immediately understood the value of his invention, and so would the public once they were given the opportunity. There was only one problem.

Edwin Howard Armstrong worked for RCA. Like today, the world of broadcasting in 1936 was dominated by a handful of companies. At the center of that establishment was RCA, an intellectual property holding company that was created to consolidate radio patents for the war effort during WWI. RCA established a monopoly over commercial radio in the 1920s and by 1936 it was creating a new market for commercial music, having introduced the 33 1/2 RPM record in 1931. David Sarnoff, president of RCA, had a different reaction to the invention of FM:

I thought Armstrong would invent some kind of a filter to remove static from our AM radio. I didn’t think he’d start a revolution—start up a whole damn new industry to compete with RCA.

Motivated by profit rather than an interest in the advancement of humanity, RCA saw FM radio not as an exciting new development but as a threat. Since Armstrong worked for RCA when he invented FM radio, they simply sat on the invention and did not develop it. When Armstrong grew impatient and began promoting his technology, RCA discredited him and questioned whether FM radio was really an improvement, using a marketing strategy that we now know as FUD, for Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt.

RCA managed to withhold the new advancement from the public just long enough for it to launch a lobbying initiative. They hired the former head of the FCC and made stifling FM radio his sole job function. Beginning in 1936, he succeeded for RCA by winning a series of crippling rulings from the FCC that would hinder the usefulness of the new technology. FM radio could transmit over greater distances than AM, but not if that were illegal.

Partly in order to make room for RCA's new television broadcasts, the FCC moved FM radio from its ideal position in the radio spectrum to where it sits now, between 88 and 108 megahertz. The FCC limited FM radio's ability to broadcast music over great distances by sharply limiting the broadcast power of FM transmitters, which protected the early AM retransmission network. In a final ironic twist, after diminishing the importance of FM and winning the initial battle for control, RCA sought and won its own patents on FM technology.

RCA ran roughshod over Edwin Armstrong in its fight against FM radio. In 1954, after his wife had left him during the ongoing patent dispute, Armstrong jumped to his death from his 13th floor apartment in New York. FM radio would not overtake AM radio in the market for decades after his death. Acting out of greed, RCA forced the general public, our parents and grandparents, to listen to forty years' worth of unnecessary clicks, pops, and static.

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Guest endymion

Above is the first in a series of posts in which I will present an argument that the music industry is broken, and ideas for how to fix it. I will establish why the music industry is not functioning properly, and I will propose a new way forward into the brave new world of music that modern technology has begun to make possible.

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Guest endymion

Thanks Coach! I can't make the meeting tomorrow, but Pandora is a great example of the same syndrome. Let's compare.

Pandora is a modern example of a new gizmo that threatens the music establishment. In March of 2000, weeks before the bubble burst and the dot-coms began to collapse, a few 20-somethings in LA got the first round of venture funding that they needed to start implementing their vision for a new way forward. They had an idea for a gizmo that did something that even other Internet pioneers did not realize was possible:

For $36 a year, after a free 10-hour preview, the company pledges to help them discover sounds they might otherwise miss--and to do it so precisely that its recommendations are better than an actual human being's.

In 2005, Pandora proved to the world that the Internet opened the door to entirely new kinds of music gizmos, and by the end of 2006 over four million people were using it. There was only one problem.

Pandora seemed like a radio station, but its audio quality meant that it and other net radio stations like it were also a new kind of gizmo for distributing music to people using the Internet. The music establishment operated a monopoly that was based on control over the distribution of music. John Simson from SoundExchange had a different reaction to the new invention:

Web radio is growing exponentially. These little stations develop a popular URL and then flip it and sell it for big money and the artists get nothing.

The tech economy confounded the RIAA because it could not find a way to tax the YouTube buyouts that were moving money around in the new system. To protect its monopoly hold over the gizmos that people use to interact with each other through music, the establishment had to crush this new kind of gizmo. In March of 2007, the RIAA succeeded. The United States Copyright Royalty Board rejected every argument made by experts in the emerging new field of webcasting, and adopted a new licensing structure for net radio stations. The licensing structure that they adopted was precisely the structure proposed by SoundExchange, a fee-collection body created by the RIAA. The new structure required radio stations like Pandora to pay a minimum fee of $500 to the music establishment for each user of its service. Pandora's future uncertain, the music establishment had "succeeded".

By every business standard, the RIAA was right to take steps to crush its competition. The entire music establishment is one giant gizmo with one simple goal: to make as much money as possible by selling music to people. The machine is not designed to encourage the advancement of music, or people. Not even the artists who feed the machine.

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Guest endymion

Also, while listening to the .977 80's station on shoutcast/winamp, one of the most popular stations there, I heard a commercial for this movement.

Thanks again, Coach. The obvious response to the RIAA's lobby against net radio is a grassroots counter-lobby.

Counter-lobbying for more favorable licensing fees for webcasters is not the right solution. In the first place, it may not even be possible. In the world of government, the will of the people competes at a disadvantage against the will of moneyed interests.

More importantly, the entire concept of licensing fees for webcasters is against music. Not against net radio, but against music itself. The way that our music gizmos are designed shapes the future of music. We must create music gizmos that encourage the advancement, not the perversion, of music. The music establishment perverts music itself when it edits the music that we hear in order to make it more marketable. They define human culture by deciding what music becomes a part of our culture, but their only goal is to make a buck selling a product. When anybody sells a product in their industry, they get a piece of it, because they own the industry. But why do they own the industry?

They have monopolistic control over music gizmos, but they do not own music itself. There is an important distinction.

People relate to other people in a wide variety of ways, such as talking to each other through spoken language, flirting, dancing, music, sign language, even honking your horn in traffic is a way to interact with other people. A company can "own" the entire market in car horns, but it doesn't "own" the sentiment that you're sending to the other driver. A company can "own" something that you write, but they can't "own" the English language itself. People own their language. The same company could also "own" control over the machines that print the books that contain what you write, but they still don't own the language itself.

Music instruments, musicians, and music, all pre-date the companies that control music distribution, yet the music establishment maintains the illusion that they "own" music itself. They do this by blurring the line between music, and the music gizmos that they sell.

The RIAA wants more money from webcasters, but why? What justification do they use for telling net radio stations that they can't exist? The justification is the notion that the music industry "owns" music itself. They are the organized racket that runs the neighborhood, from their point of view, and webcasters must pay a protection fee to operate on their turf. But there is one fatal flaw in their strategy.

The RIAA does not own music itself. It owns some music, that some musicians have chosen to feed into the RIAA's music gizmo. The RIAA does not own music that has not been fed into their gizmo. The RIAA has no justification to object to a net radio webcaster who broadcasts music that they do not own.

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Guest endymion

We speak to each other in music through time and space using the music industry, a giant machine that facilitates our interaction in the same way that our telephone networks give us our ability to talk to one another. Because the machine defines our interaction with one another, it shapes our culture.

The industry shapes our music culture when it employs nepotistic closed-door techniques to decide what artists it promotes. They also shape our culture with open American Idol-style contests by deciding what pop pulp we will be listening to the next year. The entire music industry machine acts as a filter, deciding which music is worthy of being included in our culture and what music is not. There is just one problem.

The music industry is the custodian of our music culture, but preserving and advancing our music culture is not even a goal of the machine. The goal of the machine is to sell "products". Not to advance culture.

Like a producer of pornography who descends continually deeper into new depths of depravity in order to attract an audience, the music industry has perverted our music culture in order to make a buck. The filters that decide what music we hear are weighted toward the selection of music that will sell "products". That means that the filters favor rock stars who earn press by trashing hotel rooms over rock stars who play quality rock music. It leads to suburban school kids idolizing gangsta rap and thug culture because that's what the industry promotes, because they know that it will sell. Gangsta rap is the music equivalent of an all-dwarf anal gang bang. Perversion for ratings.

The music industry promotes thug life because white suburbanite kids stopped buying music when they discovered Napster. The less affluent urban market, with listeners who are far less likely to own personal computers, had to continue buying physical media and listening to corporate FM radio. As a market-driven gizmo, the music industry's giant machine automatically shifted its attention from dance beats to hip hop beats. It selected the music that it allowed into our culture based purely on marketability, which led to a tacit acceptance of criminals and the implicit promotion of criminal behavior.

These are obviously negative cultural trends by any measure other than profit. Law-abiding suburban schoolkids are harmed by confusing media messages that glamorize criminal activity. Black culture is harmed by the ubiquitous promotion of negative stereotypes and poor role models. Nobody wins except for the music industry's profit-generating machine.

The music industry descended into the depths of depravity and perverted music itself in order to make a buck, by encouraging schoolkids to idolize criminals. There is no real conspiracy in action, that's just the goal of the machine. But this particular machine is broken. It has annexed a part of our culture as its own property and then harmed us with it.

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