You Say You Want An Internet Revolution?

Some artists consider new ways to get music to fans; hopefully the industry will help them along.

(Editor's Note: The "Sunday Morning" essay does not reflect the views of SonicNet Inc. or its affiliated companies.)

Editorial Director Michael Goldberg writes:

Maybe I'm just a dreamer. Maybe after all these years I'm still naive, but I really do think things will change.

My hope was bolstered when I opened up the Sunday New York Times on May 9 and read the "Arts & Leisure" lead article asserting that we "stand at the threshold of a revolution."

Those words came from the paper's music critic Neil Strauss, who pieced together a powerfully convincing opinion piece titled "A Chance to Break the Pop Stranglehold." It is an article that confronts both the promise the Web offers for change in the music industry and the threat of ignorance in the face of so much potential.

"This means that today we stand at the threshold of a revolution or a repetition," Strauss wrote in his piece in which he talked about how the Internet serves as a catalyst for popular and not-so-popular artists to break from the corporate music business.

His point was that, depending on whether or not enough artists take advantage of the window that now exists to part ways with the established corporations that dominate the music business and try some different business models, we will either witness a revolution, or just more of the same ol' same ol'.

For a relatively small number of artists -- the Bruce Springsteens and R.E.M.s and Mariah Careys of the world -- being signed to a corporate label is a good thing. Those companies can advance them truckloads of money, get their recordings played on the radio and their videos on MTV or VH1, market the hell out of each album and steadily pump albums into the world's record stores.

I'll never forget the five-day period in 1984 when more than 1 million copies of Michael Jackson's Thriller were sold. Many in the music business told me at the time that only Columbia Records, with it's well-oiled distribution machine, could have pulled that off.

But for most musicians, being signed to a major label is a drag. The average artist gets a so-so royalty rate, and the label deducts just about every expense -- all recording costs, at least 50 percent of video-production costs, tour support and on and on -- all from the artist's sliver of the pie.

Most artists' debuts aren't commercial successes, and by the time they do hit it big with their second or third albums they owe the label so much money that, as Strauss wrote, an artist "may see no actual money even if [they're] lucky enough to sell a million albums." Meanwhile, selling a million albums brings the label millions in profits.

On top of that, in all but a handful of cases involving superstars, the record company owns the master recordings and all rights associated with them.

And so it is that The Artist, one of the geniuses of the '80s and '90s, owns none of the brilliant recordings -- Dirty Mind (RealAudio excerpt of title track), Controversy, 1999, Sign o' the Times, Purple Rain, etc. -- he made while signed to Warner Bros. That's why, while trying to extricate himself from that Warner Bros. deal, he appeared with the word "slave" written across his face. And that's why he recently announced plans to re-record all 17 of his Warner Bros. albums for his own NPG label.

Of course, no one forces artists to enter into these deals. And The Artist certainly benefited greatly from his association with Warner Bros. In fact, we might never have heard of him if he hadn't signed to a company with enough clout to get his recordings onto the radio.

The problem is that, until recently, if you couldn't get your music on the radio or your videos on MTV; you were D.O.A. -- unless you were a hip-hop or metal artist working with a company that could get the buzz on you onto the street. And if you look at what has been played on commercial radio over, say, the past 15 years, you will find something like 95 percent or more of the recordings came from corporate labels.

So while artists aren't forced to go with a major label, if they want to have a shot at stardom, that's their only option.

I remember the frustration that members of the American Music Club felt when they would hit a town they were playing in, only to find that their indie releases weren't in local record stores. After releasing four albums on indie labels, they opted for Warner Bros.' Reprise label. Unfortunately for AMC, their decidedly uncommercial music wasn't the kind of thing Reprise could sell. After two more albums the band broke up.

The Internet has awoken some artists to the possibility that things could be different.

If Tom Petty can, in two days, have 157,000 people download one of his new songs, "Free Girl Now" (RealAudio excerpt), and thus discover how good his latest music is, then we clearly have a real alternative to radio and MTV for exposing a large audience to music. And it's a large active audience, made up of fans who seek out new music and don't wait until it's delivered to them while they sit in front of their TV set or listen to the radio.

Stars such as The Artist and Public Enemy's Chuck D, who command the attention of large audiences, are at the forefront of the revolution. They are the ones with fanbases substantial enough to demonstrate that this alternative to the old-school music business is real.

In his Times piece, Strauss writes of a new music company headed by virtual-reality visionary Jaron Lanier that has signed up over 45 artists. Those artists will have equity in the company, will receive higher royalties and will have the opportunity to invest in new artists they believe can be successful. And King Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp has formed an artist-oriented company called Discipline Global Music. His advice to new artists includes avoiding any label where the A&R man "tells the artist to record a single because their album can't be promoted without one."

I've always thought a Fugazi or an Ani DiFranco -- artists who already have their own indie labels -- would be the ones to prove the Internet was a viable way to get music out to the world.

Now, even the corporate record business is waking up to the potential of the Net.

The big companies' goals, of course, are to maintain their power, and to maintain the business structure that gives them the lion's share of the money and control of those valuable master recordings.

Driving that point home in his article, Strauss quoted Peter Townshend's famous words from the Who's rock anthem "Won't Get Fooled Again." In it, Roger Daltrey shouts, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

For the sake of future generations of musicians, one can only hope that isn't the case.