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Extraordinary Gall: RIAA v. Fans (Round 8,501) PDF Print E-mail
Monday, 14 March 2005
"Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit, sed diam nonummy nibh euismod tincidunt ut laoreet dolore magna aliquam erat volutpat." That's the place-holder text that has been used for formatting in publications since the 1500s. I'm using it here because I'm so pissed off that anything I write will come off as overly abrasive and may have the adverse effect of scaring you off. Latin's great for that. If you're not afraid of the sheer hatred bubbling in my fingertips right now, please, for the love of God, read on.

Like most Internet-frequenting Americans, I have some serious problems with the RIAA's modus operandi for quashing the "epidemic" of online filesharing. Nasty letters, writs backed by the might of the Federal government, men in black suits confiscating hard drives...pretty draconian stuff. But come on, fellows! If you're dead-set on using semi-paramilitary tactics on Internet pirates, you might as well go all the way. Why not employ battering rams? What's scarier: lawyers with subpoenas or mongoloid glandular cases beating down the dorm room door and wailing for the metallic taste of human blood? How about placing a chemical on compact discs that, when it detects a laser eye ripping its contents, turns the record into a red-hot deathcircle of skin searing plastic, ensuring would-be Robin Hoods a nasty, scarred reminder of their transgression? Or, in truly dictatorial fashion, you could line up convicted downloaders and plug 'em in the back of the head like the filthy fucking swine they are. Two words, RIAA: air bolts. Work like a charm.

In case you haven't noticed, I'm a little miffed with the Recording Industry Association of America. To put a finer point on it, I hold nothing but contempt for the pencil-necked accountant swine who have hijacked the recording industry and made patte of some of its biggest customers. All of this hate was precipitated by the RIAA's shutting down of Jon Brion fan Nadjadee's links to the unreleased Fiona Apple tracks. The links were removed, of course, but there's no stopping an MP3 once its out in the digital stew: all eleven tracks of Fiona's shelved Extraordinary Machine are now in the hands of her fans, and there's no getting them out. Sorry, Sony. The wording of the letter is boring, legalistic, and pretty frightening: threats are levelled against both Nadjadee and Lycos for hosting the content. But, to my thinking, the Sony and the RIAA don't have a leg to stand on. If the point of court cases against Internet pirates is to recoup the lost revenue from a song being distributed for free on P2P networks or the Web, then attempting to fine an individual for a record that is currently collecting dust in a vault somewhere, unavailable on the free market,  is preposterous at best. Exactly how much revenue has Sony lost from Nadjadee's posting of audio files that they clearly have no intention of releasing, in a low-quality version, nonetheless? Not bloody much.

As a quick reminder,  here are the circumstances under which this e-mail was sent. The tracks Nadjadee hosted were, for the most part, versions of the unreleased Fiona Apple tracks that were played on DJ Harms on Seattle's The End radio station back in the early part of March. Fiona fans, and people who care about the aesthetic rights of artists, were overjoyed. Despite Sony's best attempts, there's just no subduing genius: truly great works of art will always see the light of day, one way or another. The tracks were recorded from the radio and released online, so that we could marvel at the stupidity of a company that would attempt to keep music this magnificent from reaching the mainstream. These were not "CD rips" -- these were, essentially, "live"  broadcasts captured by fans and distributed within fan circles: much like bootlegged concert recordings, which the New York court has already said are protected under the First Amendment. This decision pertains to what are called in copyright "unfixed works" -- unpublished articles, live music shows, unreleased dance performances, etc. Is Extraordinary Machine an "unfixed work" according to Federal law? I'm not quite sure. I'm not a lawyer and won't pretend to know more than the absolute rudiments of Federal copyright law. My gut tells me, however, that were someone to take a case like this to court, he/she would have a very, very good chance of winning...and setting a landmark precedent for digital rights.

But what's to be done, boys and girls? We're fans: (for the most part) gentle-hearted aesthetes who want to listen to their music and be left alone. That so many of us could get together under the auspices of Dave Muscato's wonderfully executed Free Fiona campaign is stunning, and definitely against the norm. Record collectors aren't Star Trek fanatics: we don't generally protest and we mostly keep our hatred of the record companies to ourselves. Oh, damn damn the Pusherman -- I may hate the world that the RIAA represents, but damned if I don't need 'em for my fix. 

Come to think of it, I don't really hate the concept of record companies at all. In point of fact, some of my heroes come from the corporate ranks: Jerry Wexler, for instance. Head of Atlantic Records during their Stax soul golden period in the 1960s, he was the perfect record executive: canny, business-savvy, and obsessed with making hits. Sounds a lot like Sony head Andrew Lack, doesn't it? But what separates Wexler from Lack (and the other cronies who have hijacked the industry) is that Wexler knew and loved music, was willing to risk his neck when it came to bringing "Negro rhythms" to white teenagers who were tired of the post-Elvis crap that had been thrust upon them. He knew that, given the right marketing, a proud, dark black man like Otis Redding could become a social (and sex) symbol: and he was willing to pour money, time, heart, and energy into the creation of some of the finest sides ever to grace a record player. Now, what I do hate is when accountants, MBA's, and corporate goons tip the record company equation in their favor: no longer are the labels havens for artists and fans, but instead money machines with only the bottom line on their minds. A nightmare version of the "Money Go-Round" world Ray Davies created on the Kinks' Lola vs. Powerman record, a filthy world of bottom-feeding corporate fucks who know as much about the wonders of music as our President knows about the basic tenants of the forefathers's odd, grand vision for the Republic.

I can't stress enough how much this current trend in the recording world distresses me. As someone who has dumped most of his free cash into the accumulation of records, to think that I can be sued for helping to market one of the industry's higher-selling and intensely talented assets is troubling. I composed a lot of this essay while sitting in Mud on 9th Street, blasting the leaked Fiona tracks and letting the shaking rage in my belly radiate to my fingertips. My yellow legal pad was filled with long, enraged screeds and almost Thompson-esque blurts of profanity that I decided, for the sake of my message, to eliminate. But to give you a taste of how I feel, emotionally, about the corruption of the recording industry, here's a fragment of one the angrier rants:

Fucking maniac accountant fucking geeks want to hijack the industry like they hijacked film like the postmodernists hijacked literature. This is the art of Brian Wilson, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Lou Reed, fucking Bach can you believe this that they're I mean JESUS CHRIST this is MUSIC, for God's sake, the greatest of the muses, the tones of the spheres of the universe that all of us lowly prose writers aim to attain through meek, weak language. May their lungs collapse from the stink of the manure they proliferate with their locked-up distribution deals, Federally sanctioned Clear Channel payola, and high-paid photographers and Photoshop wizards. May they be magicaly dumped into ProTools, have their waveforms compressed like the feather-slapping-tapioca drum sound they seem love, and writhe in sonic pain as layers upon layers of compression pitchshift them into oblivion.

Wow. Typing that out, I see how mad (not angry, crazy) it is. I don't feel ashamed or silly for feeling so strongly about this issue: this stuff isn't as unimportant as it may at first seem. What we're dealing with here is the further corporatization of our culture: the creation of an ethos that elevates pencil-pushers to God status and leaves artists and intellectuals out in the cold. You know, popular culture is my artistic life. As much as the great classics molded my writing and worldview, the music of the Beatles and movies like Singin' in the Rain and Magnolia were equally important and formative. I don't take the pop world lightly, and I can't imagine the artists I genuinely respect do, either. I'm not asking here for some sort of massive revolutionary socialization of the arts, though that doesn't sound so bad: all I really want is for the recording industry to look back to their roots and embrace the sense of fair play and artistic daring that helped to make them what they are today. I don't expect the RIAA to stop their scare tactics; misguided as their attitudes towards filesharing may be, they have a right to protect their interests. And no, I don't expect every record to be a masterpiece: for every Beatles there's a Strawberry Alarm Clock, and that's alright. People beg for the lowest common denominator, and I say we give it to them: if we learned one thing from the 1960s, it's that trying to elevate the consciousness of every human being is an impossible (and fruitless) absurdity. But the suppression of the highest expression of an art form, strictly for financial aims, is (in the truest sense of the word) obscene.

Let's get back to the issue at hand: Fiona and her album. Look, Sony, we're doing you a great service by spreading this album by the Internet: without us, you would never have had that New York Post article, the blurbs in Spin, Rolling Stone, and the like. Fans have brought more attention to this artist than you could have ever imagined, and maybe that's part of the point. Could it be true that we're all being played as pawns in a massive marketing game? Tell the RIAA to leash their lawyer hounds: the backlash from an absurd suppression of music you refuse to release is about the worst thing that can happen at this stage. Have some faith in Fiona Apple's fans to buy the music you release, and have some faith in their ability to bring this album further into the spotlight. I guarantee you that the job the online folk are doing is a might sight better than the "traditional" methods.

And in the long run? Get the accountant bastards out of the seats of power. At this precarious stage in the everchanging world of popular culture, we need Jerry Wexlers, not Andrew fucking Lacks. The delicate dance between art and industry that is the soul of popular culture requires a perfectly balanced equation. When history and theorists have their way with this seminal happening in the pop world, one side's gonna be left wanting, and I have a good feeling it ain't gonna be us.

'Til next time,


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