Napster and the decline of copyright–part 2

“Am I remiss in wanting to protect the possibility of recouping my losses from all those years ago?  In the wake of Aimee [Mann]’s deserved recognition, why shouldn’t I be able to at the least make back my money selling a `protected’ product?” Breslau asked. “And then, besides, Aimee, Doug Vargas and Michael Evans (the other former Snakes) could start seeing a couple dollars too?”

Napster hurts big record labels a little. But it hurts little record labels like Ambiguous Records, whose big star’s records are still sitting in Breslau’s basement after 19 years, even more. But what about the musicians themselves?

I asked Breslau about the typical musician’s plight. I’d heard Courtney Love’s assertions that she made less money than I make, but at that point Breslau seemed much more real, possibly more candid and, frankly, more interesting.

“Many musicians are poor and struggle their whole lives to stay above water. Those who have regular gigs either in orchestras, as jingle players, teaching, or as sidemen aren’t making what your insurance broker is,” Breslau said. “A great many folks who are involved with music drift in and out of making a living and eventually their day gig becomes the gig. The few, the proud, the multimillionaires represent a tiny, tiny few.  Probably the same percentage that pro hoop players represent as figured against all those who played junior high ball.”

Breslau mentioned a musician he’s working with. He’s 60 years old and has been playing 150 shows a year for the past 10 years, has a worldwide following and critical acclaim. Yet he’s having difficulty finding an apartment and health insurance he can afford, and the rigors of touring are starting to catch up with him.

I asked Breslau what he thought legitimate uses of Napster might be, if there were any. His response surprised me.

He cited Napster as potentially a distribution method, and certainly a marketing and promotional tool. “For some an unspooling, open ended library like Napster can be an incredible tool, a repository of discovery and a font of fun,” Breslau said. “Those who use it the most are students and those who have work-at-home gigs.”

Napster may replace some of the more traditional methods of introduction to new music, but not for him, at least not completely.

“For someone like me who has a demanding job, family and still wants to take advantage of sunshine, the editorial screen and organization that a music store (chain or boutique) or radio provides is still very useful. It guides me to what I’m interested in and when I’m frustrated in that search and still thirst after who knows what, I now have a new tool to seek my heart’s desire through–that’s to the good.

“I do miss great radio though–WFMU here in New York is a last outpost of dedicated eclecticism,” Breslau said. “When I was growing up in suburban Maryland, WGTB, Georgetown U’s station and the old WHFS – a truly great free-form commercial station in the day–were keys to whole other worlds for me.  The role of the `trusted guide’ is perhaps diminishing and I think that’s not a good thing. Plus the art of the segue is now almost completely relegated to clubs. Great segues can illuminate whole new contexts and resonances betwixt and between different songs and musics that you have to hear to get hip to.”

I asked Breslau if he thought Napster, as some claim, was responsible for the decline in record sales cited by large labels. He didn’t seem to buy it.

“I’d say the lion’s share of the change in market share comes from the explosion of entertainment options,” Breslau said. “It’s inevitable in a world of computers, gaming, cable television and myriad other entertainment outlets that the recorded music industry should see its share of the entertainment pie diminish. Competition has totally diffused viewing habits in visual mediums–there’s no reason music should be any different.”

Breslau’s words brought to mind a quote from an interview with U2’s Bono and The Edge I read in 1994 in Details magazine. At that point, MP3 was very much in its infancy, gigabyte hard drives cost $400 and recordable CD drives cost $1,000, a 28.8 kpbs dialup connection was state of the art, and the Internet wasn’t yet a commercial success. It seemed a different world from today, but like today, record sales were down. And The Edge, U2’s lead guitarist, observed, “More people are buying video games today than records.”

And Breslau disagreed with the common idea that today’s music isn’t as good as the music of earlier, more commercially successful days.

“The broader industry is guilty of saturation marketing for fewer and fewer products while releasing all kinds of stuff they never have any intention of supporting. There is lots of good music out there,” Breslau said. “I think its arguable that today’s scene is actually broader and more vital than 5 years ago, but the predominance of mega-hit mentality with little attention spent on building artist’s careers tends to push the obvious and two-dimensional stuff out there to the fore. The idea of a company supporting an artist who comes to maturity in craft and commerce by their third recording is almost quaint at this point.”

Some examples of bands who needed three or four albums to reach maturity: U2, Rush, and Bruce Springsteen–none of whom any record executive would mind having on a label. Impatience is hurting the industry in the long term at least as much as Napster.

And Breslau said it’s too early to judge Napster’s true impact.

“Young people, particularly those in college, are now pouring some of their musical curiosity/energy into downloading and not to listening to radio or scouring live venues or music stores for new gems,” Breslau said. We’re seeing some of this impact today.

“What will be interesting to see is the long term implications of these new habits,” Breslau continued. “College age is when life long musical appreciation and consumption habits get formed.”

I liked the way Breslau concluded one of our conversations. As one who has been hurt by Napster–how many people download Bark Along With the Young Snakes instead of buying it from him?–he still sees a potential for it to be a good thing overall, so long as the law is respected.

“Napster can be many positive things: a way to give your art to the world, a way to build an audience for your art, a test of commercial viability, a great marketing tool–but all of those are affirmative voluntary acts,” Breslau said. “What troubles me is when the technology becomes compulsory, when an individual’s choice and right is overwhelmed by another individual’s desire without regard to the other’s circumstance, goals or intention. If technology is to be liberating and empowering, its radical implications must be grounded in respect for an individual’s right to privacy and liberty, and, yes, that includes the exercise of property rights.”

Part 1 in a series. Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

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