The Beatdown

For your ears only: You can listen to the music, but by God, donít share it.

The Recording Industry Association of America fired off another round of lawsuits last week. Utterly shocking, I know. But this time, rather than bullying a bunch of blue-hairs and soccer moms, the RIAA has made it personal -- or impersonal, as the case may be. The association expanded its dragnet to include a specific breed of lawbreakers: those with the name John Doe. Five-hundred-thirty-two of them, to be exact.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, I guess. Just before Christmas, the U.S. Court of Appeals pulled the plug on the RIAA's digital manhunt by reversing a lower court's decision that had allowed the record industry's caretakers to obtain user information by shoving copyright subpoenas into the hands of the alleged offenders' Internet providers. As a result, the RIAA has been relegated to chasing ghosts. It rails against musical piracy with all the futility of King Canute, shaking its fist and commanding the waves to stop rolling.

If the RIAA spent as much time working out a viable resolution as it has spent filing frivolous lawsuits, the digital revolution might actually be profitable. You know, if you can't beat 'em -- which you can't -- give them what they want and charge them for it. It seems to be working for iTunes, EMusic, Rhapsody and the reinvented version of Napster.

Or the RIAA could simply take a cue from one of the labels it represents.

A few weeks ago, Warner Bros. sent me the Von Bondies' latest disc, Pawn Shoppe Heart, along with a letter from its legal department: "As you're undoubtedly aware, illegal file trading and piracy are two of the most daunting issues facing the music industry today. We at Warner Bros. Records are working very hard to deal with these problems.

"One of our efforts to thwart unauthorized copying of CDs is to watermark the CDs we distribute. Watermarking enables us to track the CD back to the original authorized recipient," the letter continued. "This watermark is not changed or destroyed by extracting clips of the music, or by using any compression technology such as MP3."

Proactive and smart, I thought. Good for the Bros. But the letter went on to say that by accepting the disc, I agreed to: not make any copies (fair enough); not play it in my computer (guess it's a good thing I sprang for a CD player); not upload the disc or any of its contents to the Internet; and, last but not least, not lend it to anyone or let anyone else listen to it.

What the fuck? Where was Ashton Kutcher, because I was obviously being Punk'd: It's a little tough to assign CD reviews when you can't give your reviewer the CD.

This outbreak of idiocy is not limited to the major-label morons. Along with a recent release, the execs at Metropolis Records, the indie goth/industrial imprint, sent a letter that included this: "Ripping copyright material, selling promotional copies in auctions (eBay, etc.) and exploiting its content is not only illegal, but also disrespectful."

Thanks to the fine folks at Metropolis, I now have my very own shiny moral compass (I'm not sure how I made it this long without one). They were also kind enough to threaten to make my job harder by: not sending promo CDs before the street date, not including booklets with the discs and, best of all, only sending three tracks from an album. (That makes it hard to really review any Metropolis albums, but hey, do what you gotta do, folks.)

I've been a big fan of MP3 technology since Napster, and I became an even bigger fan when I got hotwired with a broadband connection of my own to explore. In the glory days of file trading, I'd spend entire weekends in the bowels of my house, downloading.

That was then, though, and this is now. When the pay services started emerging, I was one of the first to sign up. Those still using the old peer-to-peer applications don't know what they're missing. The downloads are just as fast, and the quality is ten times better. Now if the rest of the music industry -- the labels that have yet to embrace the technology -- would get a freaking clue, we might realize cyber-utopia in our lifetime. Because no matter how many lawsuits are filed, the future is already here.

Foreclosure of a dream: Last week, Virgil Dickerson, head of the eight-year-old Suburban Home Records and Suburban Home Distribution, sent out a plea for help. Dickerson's indie imprint is home to acts like the Gamits, Laymen Terms, Love Me Destroyer and Adventures of Jet; his distribution unit handles eleven labels, including Suburban Home. But if he isn't able to raise $20,000 over the next six weeks, at least one wing of Suburban Home will close for good.

According to Dickerson, the crisis was precipitated by two recent returns from Caroline, the label's primary distributor. Stores will usually stock up for the holidays, then return whatever they don't sell for credit. But while returns in retail are common, they're rarely this large this fast. "Returns are the nature of the business, so we always get hit," he explains. "But this Christmas was really bad for some of the retailers, and they didn't do as well as they had expected. So when Christmas was over, they returned stuff back to Caroline, and Caroline returned all that stuff to us. We got more returns than we've ever seen before.

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