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Blinded by Download

The future of music distribution gets pondered in Palo Alto

By Vrinda Normand

THE NEWS wires surged in July when U2 sniffed a song theft. Apparently, a CD with a few rough recordings from the band's upcoming album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, went missing. U2 feared the worst: some smelly 20-year-old punk would, while hunched over his PC with an evil grin on his face, upload the digital gold for all of the world to hear. For free!

So U2 geared up for the download battle and told iTunes to be ready; the legitimate online music store might have to (gasp!) release the new album a few months ahead of schedule. The tense climate builds as pimply computer nerds and preteens with colorful iPod Minis continue to outsmart the big honchos in the music industry.

Everyone's talking about it, especially middle-aged white men in suits. Last week, the Churchill Club sponsored a Music and Technology Panel in Palo Alto, and the feisty Bob Lefsetz, a music industry press pundit (and the only one wearing jeans and a polo shirt), was the dissenting voice. "This is such a crock of shit," he said, throwing his hands up in the air. U2 may have to release its album early because everybody in the whole world wants its song, and "this is a problem?" he asked incredulously. "I have no sympathy that people are so into you that they want to stalk you and give you all their money."

Most artists are dying for exposure, he explained, so when the record labels hold back music like candy from a child, it's not about the fans anymore. It's about some pre-planned release schedule that's coordinated for business. It's about the money. For the most part, the four panelists agreed (albeit in a less animated way) that the record labels are going to have to shut up and face the New World. Thomas Dolby Robertson, a recording artist ("She Blinded Me With Science") and tech expert, imagined their future place in the world: like air-traffic controllers for the flying cars on The Jetsons, they will facilitate file sharing by making it easier for users to sort through millions of songs in cyberspace.

The problem is, many of the old-timers in the recording industry haven't budged for 50 years. Some still don't use computers. "We are going to be forced kicking and screaming to learn [the new ways]," said Neil Portnow, president of National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) that runs the Grammy Awards.

And what will the government do? Sit back and watch? Ken Hertz, an attorney for Destiny's Child and No Doubt, thinks we should do away with copyright laws. The copyright clause in the Constitution, written 250 years ago when the Crown owned everything, was meant to promote the arts and sciences by giving creators some amount of control over their work. But in the 21st century, things have gone too far. "Any work created today will not be in the public domain in any of our lifetimes," Hertz explained. The original purpose for copyright is gone, he added, because artists are going to create with or without copyright protections. Now it's about money, control and media corporations hogging all of the distribution channels.

The Internet is about getting rid of the middlemen and shortening the distance between the artists and the fans. For most new and struggling musicians, this is great news. With powerful computers, digital sound editing programs and file sharing universes, "they no longer have to create the way the music-industry dictates," Robertson said. In the end, the music industry is still sucking in huge amounts of money, even with the Internet. U2 didn't jump the gun after all and waited until September to release its new single "Vertigo" on iTunes. It promptly shot to No. 1 in the U.S., U.K., French and German download stores.

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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