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The Devil’s Music Industry

Six local men have been charged with Class III felonies, which carry sentences of up to five years each, for their role in the next great public scourge: bootlegging. No, not the kind Joe Kennedy’s fortune was built on, nor that which made household names of Capone and Bronfman. I’m talking about bootleg CDs. No, not Certificates of Deposit, which could inflict serious damage upon the financial system if bootlegged. I mean compact discs, those things that get more expensive to buy as they get cheaper to produce. 10,000 confiscated CDs and DVDs could net the sextet 30 years in prison or more.

Question: Why are Officers of the esteemed and vital Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office being made to do the dirty business of the Recording Industry Association of America? People caught bootlegging Led Zeppelin shows were usually beaten senseless and thrown out along with their shattered equipment. That seems almost better than what the Register of Britain cartoonishly describes as the “new Prohibition jihad” directed by the RIAA. The language is clunky but precise, as a jihad (“holy war”) is an irrational hatred fueled by fear, and fear, in my opinion, is what motivates the recent RIAA craziness.

Register reporter Andrew Orlowski also quotes Bill Evans of Boycott-RIAA as saying that “there are more file-sharers than voters for either candidate [in] the last Presidential election.” The six men arrested over the weekend of July 26-27 would represent only four percent of the approximately 75 people who are being served with subpoenas every day for illegal downloading of music, if these newly-minted crimes were not considered separate and distinct, which thee really aren’t. If the law were uniformly applied, over 40 million Americans would be subject to at least a steep fine, if not jail or the destruction of their computer by virus. Some of them would have to be served their subpoena in the deserts of Iraq, and some might be dead already. Some of them would be musicians, and others would be children or old people.

It’s bad enough that the music industry is content with wrecking the local economies of cities all over America, including ours; but why, why the Hell are local authorities playing along? Aren’t they supposed to be out looking for terrorists and dope fiends and other criminals who terrorize good, decent, law-abiding citizens? It’s like the old joke:

Q: “How do you smuggle a kilo of cocaine into the United States?”

A: “Hide it inside the body of a terrorist!”

No, that’s not funny, and neither is the public’s sheepish adherence to the dictates of the RIAA and others who would first screw the musicians and then screw the consumers. It’s flat-out sick, and fully contrary to the national interest.

Who in Jacksonville, FL is losing their livelihood because of illegally duplicated CDs? Most of the locally-owned record stores were shut down years ago, after certain large corporations conspired to run local music off the airwaves, and the rest don’t care. They know the score. They know that the RIAA is basically a front for about five companies, most of which are owned by foreign interests. The same could be said for the MPAA and, ever more, the Federal Communications Commission, which should be about ready to issue a public statement of regret for the Telecom Act of 1996, which has given us 34% fewer radio owners and millions fewer listeners in that span. Instead, they are only now beginning to feel any pressure from the rest of government.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, who led the 3-2 vote to, among other things, raise the ceiling of TV ownership from 35% to 45% and permit the same companies to have full-spectrum dominance to the point of virtual monopoly in a single market (or all of them), has not yet received a public word of support from either his father Colin Powell or President Bush. Odd, since Powell is now becoming the object of scorn for a general deregulatory process that he’s had a relatively minor role in so far, but which could end his career at the FCC before the year is over. It’s as if scattered elements of influence in the nation have only now felt any threat from an agenda that goes back at least seven years now.

99.9% of calls into the Congressional switchboard were in opposition to the recent round of deregulation, and such diverse figures as John McCain, Fritz Hollings and Trent Lott (who pointedly stated that “probably most of the Republicans in the Congress would not agree with this decision”) have stepped up to call these people out for what they are: carpetbaggers.

The recent obsession with royalties obscures the fact that an artist can profit in all kinds of ways, not all of which involve cash. Ironically, the recent RIAA offensive occurs just as the positive side of bootlegging has received a fresh and timely view in such outlets as the occasionally-prescient Rolling Stone, thanks to a series of high-profile feuds between people like Nas, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Ja Rule and Eminem that have developed on the mixtapes circulated by area DJs, some of whom even have radio gigs to supplement their income. (Perish the thought!) The mixtape, which is essentially a compilation of material with and/or without the permission of the artists, is an art-form that goes as far back as Alan Lomax’s revelatory recordings for Smithsonian Folkways.

Certain MCs who’ve made the jump to mainstream success are able to burnish their reps, keep their battle-skills sharp and whet the hardcore fan’s appetite for fresh material—all without the poisonous influence of the record industry. At the same time, newer and rawer talent get the rub from being on the same CD as people who will draw. The street vendor turns a substantial profit, the consumer gets cutting-edge material for $5 or $10 and the artists get hype. If run through standard industry channels, much of the material that people buy these things for would not be fully-vetted in time to have any relevance. The element of surprise would be gone, and the artist’s creative urges would be completely at the mercy of the industry.

The line between a mixtape and a bootleg is drawn by the RIAA, which has no fundamental connection to the artists it claims to represent. The RIAA is not a union for musicians; musicians have no union. The suits have the RIAA, which did not stand up for the musicians when deregulation undermined and largely destroyed the regional music networks that once functioned somewhat like semipro baseball or off-Broadway theatre: areas where craftsmen could hone their skills as they waited for a spot to open up in the big time. Even the ones who never made it that far had a fair shot at success, moreso than now. So much talent in this country now atrophies in call centers or restaurants, not because they’re not good, but because the infrastructure that was so carefully built to support their gift was destroyed by deliberate action of the RIAA. And now, when people who know better like the JSO should be moving to counter this trend, instead they lay down for Yankees. What happ! ened to sovereignty?

If the American people were more fully cognizant of what’s being done to them in the name of “intellectual property” and other nonsense, they would buy a whole lot more of their music through such shady sources, especially stuff made by musicians who are now dead. I’m fine with artists making their fair share, and earning what they deserve via the free market; that’s what this debate is all about. The RIAA, however, needs to answer two important questions:

1) What percentage of “officially-released” CDs are made in America?

2) Has the average royalty rate paid on CD sales risen at a rate that reflects the increased cost of new CDs to the consumer, as well as the decreased cost of production?

The two questions are both relevant and related, for if it turns out that the music industry is using local police to back up their exploitation of cheap labor for the purpose of stealing income from the artists they claim to represent, then maybe! the wrong people are going to jail.

SHELDON HULL writes for CounterPunch and Lew Rockwell.com. He can be reached at: sdh666@hotmail.com

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