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[whitespace] One in a Million

Numbers always lie, especially when it comes to the music industry

By Gina Arnold

ONE OF THE DUMBEST stories I've ever heard about rock stars was about a wussy British one of the temporary type who couldn't decide what tattoo to get, so he asked Henry Rollins for his sage advice.

"Well," replied Henry, whose body, FYI, is covered with them, "numbers never lie." Apparently, the rock star thought this was so profound that he went and has his birth date tattooed on his biceps.

Now I think this story emanates stupidity for several reasons--not least of which is the fact that asking someone's advice on a tattoo shows a lack of certainty that ought to preclude one from doing the deed in the first place--but mostly because of the statement "numbers never lie."

Numbers always lie--especially when they're about music. And it's sad, because the entire music industry is based on them. Billboard, the music industry's bible, devotes hundreds of pages of analysis to statistics a week--statistics that pass as criticism, as praise, as opinion, statistics that actually determine decisions that can change the course of a band's career.

Imagine treating something as subjective as music as if it were a contest. And yet that's the way it works and probably will always work ... for life everlasting, amen.

It could be worse though. In the old days--pre-1991--those statistics were derived in a far more suspect manner, via various orally given spot reports from record stores and even shakier methods having to do with record company input. Having a No. 1 record usually meant having a No. 1 record company.

Then, in 1991, when computers were finally trustworthy enough, the record industry implemented Soundscan, in which sales statistics were taken directly from the bar codes entered into the computers at select chains of record stores.

The first thing that happened? Garth Brooks, Michael Jackson and Skid Row all fell dramatically down the sales charts, and Nirvana went to the top. The rest is legend.

Soundscan isn't a perfect system by any means, but it made some significant changes in the record industry and in radio. The industry now uses Soundscan figures to decide which bands to sign and which to promote. The system can break down markets, thus showing that Beck is popular on the coasts and not in the Midwest (or whatever), and it can even make a stab at showing whether Napster use has affected sales of Metallica CDs.

A SIMILAR TRACKING method is now about to be implemented by the publishing industry. "Bookscan" is a system whereby chains like Borders and Barnes and Noble will scan their sales information directly into a datebase. Publishers will then buy the data and use it to make changes in the way they do business.

Most booksellers (and some publishers) see this as an aesthetic, if not an economic, disaster. But if books go like records, the first thing we'll find out is that volumes with "angel" in the title and tomes like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus are in fact duds. We may discover that what the world really wants to read is the newest Thomas Pynchon novel.

Such a scenario is actually too good to really occur. But it's a weird thing about fiction, compared to rock music. Fiction simply doesn't make writers any money. Unless a book gets sold for a movie, it's day-job city for authors. And yet this hasn't stopped people from writing millions of books, some of which are even wonderful and worthy.

In fact, the poorer a book's sales, the more likely it is to be a good one, a phenomenon that says something pretty profound about the numbers game that Soundscan and Bookscan represent.

Being an author--particularly of fiction--still counts as one of the more prestigious and glamorous job titles left in the universe, but it may well be the only one that is prestigious despite being enormously low paid. And the other day, I was thinking how great it would be if rock & roll became like that.

What if, instead of being something that its novice practitioners turned to in the hopes of making millions, it became something that people went into knowing full well they wouldn't? If that were the case, I think we'd get a whole different class of rock stars--and rock music--a class much closer in feel to the type made in the 1950s and even '60s, when no one in the game really expected to make a fortune--and when numbers alone didn't determine what was heard.

The Shape of Things to Come

SPEAKING OF MONEY and its fell effect on music, it's about one year since the first Napster hearing at the San Francisco Federal Building, which was presided over by Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. Thus, this is a good time to assess what exactly has been accomplished by the courts in this landmark copyright infringement decision.

Despite a series of losses in court, Napster hasn't quite been dismantled yet. It still works, in a way, and is busy instituting a subscription service and signing contracts with European labels like the U.K. Association of Independent Music (AIM) and the Independent Music Publishers and Labels Association (IMPALA) that will ensure a certain amount of decent content on the site. (AIM and IMPALA are obviously not following the lead of the RIAA, the equivalent American entity that instituted the original suit against Napster.)

Meanwhile, other sites, like AIMSTER, which does what Napster did through instant messaging, allow just as much free music file-swapping as ever to take place. So although the RIAA may be claiming victory over a practice it views as "music piracy," and has, it's true, managed to put a crimp in the process, it hasn't exactly covered itself in glory.

If anything, the music industry looks foolish, hidebound and greedy--not that that's anything new--and the legal world has, once again, shown itself to be a slow and impractical method of problem solving. Now, Napster may or may not survive the next 12 months, but it has in many ways served a far higher purpose, not just by providing us with lots of MP3 files, but by teaching the world the practical value of the Internet and raising our consciousness about intellectual property rights.

That's why I look forward eagerly to all developments, both positive and negative. Here's to the years.

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From the August 2-8, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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