Harvard Crimson Interview with Girl Talk

This Harvard Crimson interview with Girl Talk is quite good. Here’s a relevant gem:

13. FM: A significant aspect of the narrative out there about you deals with the legality of your music, which uses samples from other artists without permission. Have you ever even been sued?

GT: We’ve had no problems. I feel that it should be legal, so I’m not totally surprised. It’s exciting, though, and I think it could be a sign of the times. I think people are becoming more used to the idea of sampling. Artists, musicians, young people, old people, are recontextualizing and appropriating the media.

14. FM: Have you ever gotten feedback from artists you’ve sampled?

GT: I’ve never had any negative reactions, but I’ve had positive ones. I’ve had Sophie B. Hawkins’ manager contact me to see if we could possibly collaborate, a member of Yo Majesty told me they liked my stuff, Big Boi from Outkast came to a show of mine and came to talk to me. He was completely down with what I was doing.

My wife, Tina Collins, (who gets link credit) tells me he’s playing at Harvard on Thursday, November 20, before the Harvard-Yale pep rally. I’m so jealous. We saw him this summer at All Points West, and he rocked the house.

UPDATE: Forgot to mention that his “CD” is available for name-your-price download. Here’s the link from his MySpace page.

Is Music DRM Dead?

The Wired blog Underwire appears ready to declare music-protecting DRM dead in light of Sony BMG’s decision to begin selling some tracks in the unprotected MP3 format.

Since Sony was the last holdout among the big four record labels, this is indeed big news; that said, I remain skeptical that the music industry will completely ditch DRM in the near future. Inertia and stubbornness are powerful forces.

Music Biz: Blooming or Dying? Same Data, Two Frames

In two different news stories summarizing the latest Nielsen Soundscan music sales report, the music industry is cast as growing at a remarkable clip or continuing its long, slow decline.

Variety takes the latter tack, moaning, “Album sales take a tumble in 2007.” In contrast, the Centre Daily Times celebrates the growth in total sales from 1.2 billion units in 2006 to 1.4 billion last year.

Of course, as this story filters into the rest of the media, Variety’s spin will undoubtedly carry more weight. Yet the shift to digital units is hardly all doom and gloom.

Digital delivery is cheaper–especially for the labels, considering that Apple, Walmart, and Amazon pay to host and move the files. End users do a great deal of the marketing for the labels. Ringtones are also a robust market. In short, this data suggests the year-to-year change in 2007 is roughly a wash.

It is painful for the music industry to change its business practices away from the physical distribution of albums to the digital distribution of tracks. For most industries, the collective response is, “Tough luck.” Nobody mourned the passing of the buggy whip industry. Yet the music industry gets political and rhetorical support befitting an endangered species.

In the long term, the music industry should be expected to adapt to consumer expectations–a strategy they finally seem to be taking to heart.

(Thanks to Joe Turow for the Variety link.)

Wired: Vinyl May Be Final Nail in CDs Coffin

From the same Wired commentator who recently celebrated the slow death of music DRM, Eliot Van Buskirk now considers the impact of the vinyl resurgence on CDs.

The argument is almost certainly overstated, and he makes no good causal connection between the still-sparse (albeit growing) amount of vinyl and turntable sales, but I enjoyed reading about the rediscovery of vinyl.

In the interest of full disclosure, I may be a shade biased: I’m a former drum & bass DJ (still a hobbyist), and my household has three turntables and roughly 150 records.

Music Exec Bemoans “Inadvertent” War on Consumers

In a speech to the GSMA Mobile Asia Congress in Macau, Warner Music chief Edgar Bronfman warned the mobile industry not to make the music industry’s mistakes in failing to satisfy consumer wishes:

“We used to fool ourselves,’ he said. “We used to think our content was perfect just exactly as it was. We expected our business would remain blissfully unaffected even as the world of interactivity, constant connection and file sharing was exploding. And of course we were wrong. How were we wrong? By standing still or moving at a glacial pace, we inadvertently went to war with consumers by denying them what they wanted and could otherwise find and as a result of course, consumers won.”

While “Don’t do as we’ve done” is a valid lesson and a newsworthy public admission, industry critics like Howard Knopf are quick to point out that Bronfman evades his industry’s inescapable responsibility for their fate:

Considering all the litigation, lobbying, legislation and treaties that we have seen in the past two decades, “inadvertently” is a strange choice of wording. But let’s take our apologies and conversions where we can get them.

As others have pointed out on the listservs, this is not to say the music industry will stop its scorched-earth litigation. Quite the contrary, they’ve been suing every startup and only settling once they have some equity in the company, using copyright to leverage their way into the successes of the future.

Linkfest: RIAA Peer-to-Peer Trial

On Thursday, a federal jury in Minnesota found a woman liable for uploading 24 songs via the peer-to-peer network Kazaa, ordering her to pay $220,000.

The volume of online discussion of this case is unsurprisingly large, but I thought it would be worth highlighting some of the coverage, especially from CNet and Ars Technica.

CNet provides its own linkfest, referencing several articles worth a glimpse. The Bush administration crowed about the case as proof positive that copyright law is working, while Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) grumbled that the “damages are obviously excessive and are way out of line.” Unsurprisingly, the defendant, Jammie Thomas, maintained her innocence and decried the large penalty.

Three opinion articles stick out here. Charles Cooper has a basic piece on why record labels are their own worst PR enemies. Declan McCullagh, now blogging as The Iconoclast, has two more, one breaking down why the RIAA won the case, and another giving a not-too-shabby institutional rational choice explanation of how copyright has grown so bloated that fines have far outgrown the offense.

Ars Technica provided outstanding coverage during the trial. Jennifer Pariser, the head of litigation for Sony BMG, provided for two particularly newsworthy entries. First, she noted the labels have lost money in their legal offensive against file sharers.

Pariser also argued copying purchased music for one’s own enjoyment is “a nice way of saying ‘steals just one copy.'” This is a very narrow interpretation of fair use starkly at odds with the Audio Home Recording Act, as interpreted by the Diamond Rio case. In short, current case and statutory law says pretty clearly that ripping CDs to your MP3 player is not stealing.

Perhaps the funniest analysis comes from the first comment following William Patry’s comment on the verdict. As self-described “copyright abolitionist” Crosbie Fitch writes, “I compare the jury to the students in Milgram’s shock experiment” (link in original).

Can Rick Rubin Save the Music Industry?

In this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, an excellent profile of music mogul Rick Rubin suggests Sony’s recent hiring of Rubin as Columbia Records co-head just might save both the company and the music industry.

Rubin certainly seems bent on changing the music industry. He sounds like a Free Culture activist, scolding the industry for its failure to stay focused on producing quality music, decrying them as reliant on monopolistic leveraging, and seething over their use of spyware DRM.

Fantastic quotes from Rubin include:

In the past, I’ve tried to protect artists from the label, and now my job would also be to protect the label from itself. So many of the decisions at these companies are not about the music. They are shortsighted and desperate. For so long, the record industry had control. But now that monopoly has ended, they don’t know what to do. I thought it would be an interesting challenge. …

Columbia is stuck in the dark ages. I have great confidence that we will have the best record company in the industry, but the reality is, in today’s world, we might have the best dinosaur. Until a new model is agreed upon and rolling, we can be the best at the existing paradigm, but until the paradigm shifts, it’s going to be a declining business. This model is done. …

Either all the record companies will get together or the industry will fall apart and someone like Microsoft will come in and buy one of the companies at wholesale and do what needs to be done,” he said. “The future technology companies will either wait for the record companies to smarten up, or they’ll let them sink until they can buy them for 10 cents on the dollar and own the whole thing.

Of course, nobody knows for sure if this legend can save the music business. But why not hand the keys over to the man who started Def Jam Records from his NYU dorm room?

South Park Creators Think Digital

Here’s a minilink to a NYT story about Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s new South Park deal (worth roughly $75m over 4 years), in which they get a share of ad revenue and seek to take the show online–in other words, to move on from Viacom’s 20th-Century business model.

Let me spoil the best part right now:

To Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators and executive producers of “South Park,” Comedy Central’s most lucrative franchise, the clip ought to have been blazing its authorized way around the Internet, its flouting of social norms picking up ad revenue with every set of eyeballs. Instead, the clip was easy to find, but it wasn’t making any money for its rightful owners.

“If I’m overseas and have to get an episode right away,” Mr. Stone lamented, “you literally have to go to an illegal download site.”

Dude, that was $%^&* sweet!

Universal not renewing iTunes contract

In a move the Times describes “as a boiling over of the long-simmering tensions between Mr. Jobs and the major record labels,” Universal Music Group (UMG) has declined to renew its annual iTunes contract.

The reasons are simple enough: the music industry wants some tracks to cost more than $.99, while Apple likes the one-price-fits-all model and has refused to budge. UMG, a division of Vivendi Universal and the world’s largest label, can still license tracks on a piecemeal basis, but they are now reserving the right to withhold some of its hot tracks in an effort to gain leverage.

UMG will have a hard time winning this standoff. iTunes is the source of nearly all industry-sanctioned digital music downloads; for the labels, it’s approximately the last great hope for saving anything resembling the current business model.

For Apple, however, iTunes is just a vehicle for moving iPods. After all, the ubiquitous toys also play MP3s. UMG needs Apple much more than Apple needs Universal.

Jobs has already made his position clear: if you want to limp out the door, go right ahead.

Occasionally Free

Interesting article at the Independent about giving away free music downloads:

The record industry has reached a strange pass when it makes more economic sense to give away an entire album than to spend the money needed to persuade people to buy it. But, when it comes to the process of downloading, it seems that the cost of providing tracks and the profit margins from them are slender enough often to make giving music away the only worthwhile option.

Also links to Free Albums Galore, mostly featuring obscure bands, but also hosting the likes of a Smashing Pumpkins album that Virgin had refused to release.