NASHVILLE SKYLINE: “Rip. Mix. Burn.” Becomes Legal Downloading

NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Two very pivotal developments in music this week may have far-reaching effects on music.

One is the launch of the first cohesive, multi-label music download site. For a music industry that is busy right now suing its own customers over downloading, it’s disgraceful that it has taken this long for a cohesive, legal downloading service to finally emerge. The fact that it took an outsider — Apple Computer’s Steve Jobs — to do it speaks volumes about the incompetence of the music industry.

The RIAA, the industry’s lobbying arm (or strong-arm, given its recent tactics) is discovering that suing college students for billions of dollars in damages over downloading is becoming an ineffectual tactic — as well as a public relations nightmare — so it’s trying a different tack. The problem is that free downloading and file sharing has been going on for so long that an entire generation feels that free music is a birthright and the normal way of life. How do you change that mindset? The RIAA is now trying new tactics: sending millions of messages to file users informing them that downloading or sharing is illegal and warning them that they can be identified, by flooding user networks with bogus songs and by emphasizing the virus risks of downloading. Combating song piracy is fine. Too bad the RIAA hasn’t devoted as much time and energy to a positive solution as it has to a negative, punitive campaign.

Apple, which launched its iTunes Music Store this week, reported sales of more than 200,000 downloadings in its first day of operation. The Store, which offers tracks for 99 cents each, is the first such outlet to offer catalog from all five major music conglomerates. The five have been unable to reach agreements for years — even after BMG bought Napster and tried to interest the others. iTunes downloaders can keep the songs indefinitely, share them with up to three other computers and send them to an unlimited number of iPods. There is no monthly fee. For now, the service is available only to Mac users; PC compatibility should be available by the end of the year. How ironic that Steve Jobs — the man hated and feared by music executives as Mr. “Rip. Mix. Burn.” — may become the music industry’s savior.

Secondly, a solid artist front is emerging in the upcoming battle against radio monopolies. In one recent example of radio autocracy, the most troubling aspect of the Dixie Chicks flap was not the public reaction to Natalie Maines’ remarks but the behavior by some of those in country radio. Many stations rushed to exploit the controversy for their own gain, turning it into just another radio stunt, on the order of “disco sucks” destruction rallies from the distant past. More disturbing, though, was the display of arrogant power by one man in banning the Chicks’ song “Travelin’ Soldier” from all 42 country stations in his chain as well as other stations in the 200-plus chain. Cumulus executive VP John Dickey imposed his own will on the listening public.

Cumulus has now called for a public poll about that song and about the Chicks and is hinting the ban may be dropped. It’s a bit late — the song is long since dead and the issue should have been dealt with squarely at the time. Polling the public now is a bit disingenuous — he didn’t ask anyone when he banned it. And, there’s the lingering matter of the airwaves belonging to the public. The public should be the ones to make the call on whether they want to hear something or not hear it. In any case, they should be offered that choice. There’s a certain public trust involved in radio ownership.

That is going to be addressed in the future in some form by Congress, which is finally becoming interested in the radio conglomerates’ growing monopolies. The major point of an artists-united letter that went to the FCC this week (and which was signed by a number of major recording artists, including Tim McGraw , Toby Keith , Don Henley, Jimmy Buffett and others) is an insistence that the public and Congress be allowed a hand in the upcoming FCC review of media ownership rules. The letter, citing recent studies, asserts that radio consolidation has resulted in less competition, reduced programming diversity, the homogenization of playlists, less public access to the airwaves and listener dissatisfaction with available programming. When one company owns 1,200 radio stations as well as ownership of SFX Entertainment, the leading concert-venue owner and touring promoter — as does Clear Channel Communications — it’s difficult to see how the public is being better served. Not to mention the artists. Or the music.

There are some bright spots on the horizon for music and the arts. Music executive Mike Curb has quietly been funding education efforts for some time. The Mike Curb School for Music Business at Nashville’s Belmont University has become the leading such program in the country. In addition to graduating large numbers of students now working in music across the country, it’s also turned out such artists as Trisha Yearwood and Brad Paisley . As of this fall, the school will become a college. A search for a dean is now underway and it may the first time that a university has advertised for a dean in the pages of the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, as well as in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Curb has also funded the recently-announced Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. The Center will be headed by former National Endowment for the Arts chairman and former Country Music Foundation and Hall of Fame director Bill Ivey. At the ceremony announcing the new Center, Curb pointed out that he is a Reagan Republican (he was Lt. Gov. of California under then Gov. Ronald Reagan) and Ivey is a Clinton Democrat and that such a partnership was indicative of the Center’s direction in pursuing a non-partisan mission. That mission, simply stated, is to explore the five key sources of cultural policy in this country: the decisions of individuals in the arts industries, corporate practice, trade agreements and regulatory agencies, the impact of private arts patrons and intellectual property law. American cultural policy, says the Center’s definition, is “the decisions, practices, regulations and laws that nurture or constrain creative work and that facilitate or restrict the availability of art and artistry.”

So, this new Center will be the first such cohesive effort to identify, examine and engage the many influences on culture in this country and to focus on the many effects of those influencing forces.