Wednesday, March 17, 2010

We're Killing Music (Again)

This video commissioned by UK ISP TalkTalk (which apparently has nothing to do with the seminal ‘80s band of the same name) as a response to the anti-filesharing proposals making the legislative rounds in Britain does a remarkable job at laying to waste age-old arguments that it's the fans who are killing the music biz.

Cobbled together by Dan Bull, who became an internetional star in the wake of his Dear Lily parody, “Home Taping Is Killing Music” features the unlikely likenesses of Madonna, George Michael and Adam Ant at their ‘80s awesomest, singing about how if you, the fan, were to spuriously record their music onto a cassette tape, you and your proletariat friends will bring the record business crashing down, and all your favorite artists will starve to death in cardboard boxes on the steps of a boarded-up Capitol Records office building.

I realize some of you of a certain age may not remember the campaign (some of you may not even know what a cassette tape is.) but there was an actual campaign by the major labels centered around the battle cry, “Home Taping Is Killing Music” in the ‘80s. I remember it well and laughed about it at the time. But for some reason, it wasn’t until I saw this video that I made the connection between that ill-fated campaign and the new one against downloading that the record companies are fighting now. It’s still a war on the consumer. And that’s why they’ll lose again.

One of the things that made me laugh about the original anti-home taping campaign was the Dead Kennedys. Though the DKs made me laugh frequently, I remember the smug thrill I felt upon purchasing their In God We Trust, Inc EP on cassette and seeing the infamous text printed on Side B—“Home taping is killing record industry profits! We left this side blank so you could help.”

I felt like I was enlisting in the Dead Kennedys Army, and did my part by promptly recording my favorite songs from a Homestead Records compilation on the other side. But I’d already bought the record and Homestead was a valiant indie label. I had unwittingly defeated the purpose. But it felt rebellious.

By the time I began working in record stores in the early ‘90s, a new campaign was underway. The Parents Music Resource Center, headed by Tipper Gore (wife of Manbearpig hunter, Al Gore) was out to save the world from those who dared to swear. Although it wasn't a record company initiative, the major labels were more than willing to grab their collective ankles despite artists' objections. It’s thanks to the PMRC that you now see the ubiquitous “Parental Advisory—Explicit Lyrics” stickers on every other CD. Unless you shop at Wal Mart.

They actually had congressional hearings on the matter. I remember watching parts of the hearings and being amazed by the ridiculousness of it. But the hearings had two unintended consequences for me. First, they formally introduced me to Frank Zappa. I’d heard the name and seen his records, but being a young punk, I assumed by the shear size of his catalog that it was music for old farts. Boy, was I wrong. His eloquence at those hearings turned me on to a new world of sound, humor and virtuosity. For that, I can’t thank the PMRC enough.

The second thing the hearings did was even more remarkable. Coming of age in the ‘80s was rough if you hated heavy metal like I did. Metal acts like Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Poison and Twisted Sister were second only to the cheesy pop that dominated MTV back then. But someone else came to speak out against the PMRC during those hearings—Dee Snider, the lead singer from Twisted Sister. I could tell when he walked into the hearing room with is big hair and ripped denim that the congress critters were all checking to make sure their wallets were secure and they had a clear path to the exit. Snider sat down, pulled his speech out of his pocket, and proceeded to destroy them. It was awesome. Suddenly, I had an unlikely hero. Though I’d never buy his music, I was in Dee Snider’s Army every bit as much as I was in the Dead Kennedys Army.

Throughout the early ‘90s, I watched as the “Parental Advisory” labels took up valuable real estate on CD covers and record companies manufactured “clean” and “dirty” versions of every record that came with a warning. I dutifully wore my Sonic Youth “Smash The PMRC” shirt and watched artists find clever ways to make fun of the stupid label, culminating in Jane’s Addiction’s now-famous “First Amendment” cover art for the “clean” version of Ritual De Lo Habitual.

And so it goes. Back then, there were seven major label distributors. Now they’re down to 3 or 4. I can’t keep track of all the mergers. But it doesn’t matter because the tactics are the same. They cheat the artists, they blame and go after the consumer when profits trend down, nothing is their fault, and, of course, their dated business model is not the problem.

Home taping didn’t kill the recording industry and downloading won’t kill the recording industry. But things like record labels going after consumers and governments treating consumers like children will. Nobody wants to be told what to listen to or how or when they can listen to it. And though it’s unclear whether there is a business model that can satisfy record labels, artists and fans, what is clear is that one of those three is becoming superfluous thanks to cheaper technology and nearly limitless worldwide access directly to consumers. It is the labels who will be left behind if they don’t figure it out. They’ve been slow to act and I believe that “Home Taping Is Killing Music” nicely explains to the major labels that these sorts of tactics did not and will not work. Unfortunately, they won't acknowledge it until long after their obituaries are written.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post. I couldn't agree more. I posted on a very similar subject just a few days ago. The problems with current copyright law aren't limited to file sharing, they involve the act of creativity itself. Creativity has always involved appropriating and combining the ideas and work of others in ways that had not been experienced before. Except now that appropriation is illegal.