November 8-14, 2006

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No Mother Teresa?: And that would be: [email protected]

Cranky Pants

Exploding three musical myths

By Karl Byrn

Just like pre-election propaganda, the pop music world is full of misrepresentations that can't be trusted. Here are a few recent music myths that bother me.

Myth no. 1: Legal downloading protects artists

Downloads are the future of music distribution, but sticky issues pitting legal vs. illegal downloads are far from resolved. In a struggle to preserve their market share, the major music conglomerates are winning a war of attrition over free peer-to-peer services. Recently, the once-popular file-sharing service Kazaa paid a $100 million settlement to big boys Sony-BMG, Warner Music, Universal Music and EMI, further agreeing to filter major label content from its service while it transitions to either a pay-per-download or subscription format. LimeWire, the last popular free peer-to-peer site, is currently exchanging lawsuits with the majors.

The flag of honor flown by the majors has always been copyright protection. This argument has merit, except that it offers the comforting illusion of protecting artist royalties. The majors, now regaining control of distribution and income, are oddly embracing free downloads. Set to launch in December, the nascent online service SpiralFrog has partnered with Universal Music and EMI Publishing to offer free songs from those company's vast combined catalogues. Users must view advertisements before songs will download, which may be a mere inconvenience. But SpiralFrog's format is actually user-hostile: files are only compatible with PC-based Windows Media, can't be burned to disc, won't load onto iPods and expire each month if you don't log in to view more ads on the SpiralFrog site.

This partnership is being hailed as a model of successful legal downloading. I say it's at long last a bald-faced admission of guilt. Universal and EMI aren't interested in music sales or even content control; rather, their payoff is a huge slice of third-party ad revenue. This immeasurable income source remains disconnected from sales-based (or download-based) royalty payments. In dozens of articles written on the SpiralFrog/Universal/EMI partnership, the question of how royalties will be paid comes up only once. What insiders love about the new model has nothing to do with artists; the excitement is about competition for iTunes and a marketing path to a young adult audience.

Myth no. 2: Bono is a human rights activist

Some say that in spite of Bono's contradictions, the famous U2 frontman is heroic simply for suggesting that we should care about other people's problems. I say the hollowness of Bono's suggestion makes his contradictions untenable. He's no Mother Teresa living with the poor; his track record instead features layers of elbow-rubbing with the world's most powerful, privileged conservatives. Lauded for lobbying economic superpowers on debt relief to Third World nations, Bono to date has yet to spend substantial time with grass-roots leaders in those nations.

In fact, there's no indication that Bono hangs with progressive leaders at all. He's met with Dubya, but hasn't said a word against the war in Iraq. Until recently, Bono's biggest pal in power was right-wing extremist and former Senator Jesse Helms. Now, with Bono's recent purchase of a 40 percent share of capitalist-elitist magazine Forbes, the singer is in partnership with ultraconservative, ultrawealthy wannabe presidential candidate Steve Forbes.

Ironically, Bono has lobbied the Irish government to increase tax funding for the African HIV relief program Ireland Aid, but U2 recently moved its business operations to the Netherlands to avoid paying taxes. Coincidently, the Irish government just imposed a cap on tax-free earnings by artists, while tax on artist income in the Netherlands is minimal. Is Bono putting his money where his mouth is? You betcha--right on the ass of the global wealth-mongering power structure.

Myth no. 3: Bob Dylan's new album is a masterpiece

Modern Times is being widely hailed as a tough, mature study of blues and early American pop that ranks with Dylan's best. Modern Times is a strong roots-rock effort and a compelling return by an all-time classic rocker. It's also got keen lyrics. But so do the new discs by Bob Seger and Tom Petty. And that's simply not good enough.

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