Music industry: look in the mirrorSteve Hammer

In my role as NUVO's music editor, I receive approximately 500 promotional CDs in the mail every year. I deal with them accordingly. Every disc from a local artist is listened to, the best national artists get heard and the rest get pitched in the trash. The CD itself even looked threatening to me. My name was embossed on the disc, along with a bar code and serial number.

The new Eric Clapton disc, which is scheduled for release later this month, falls in between the last two categories. Chances are I'd listen to it on a rainy day and then pass it along to one of the more blues-oriented journalists I know.

But on Friday of last week, Warner Brothers Records sent me a FedEx package that forced the issue and phrased things in a way I've never seen before.

The package was accompanied by the usual press release extolling the virtues of the disc, and a personalized, slightly scary note from a senior vice president at the label.

It read, in part: "Dear Steve Hammer: As you're undoubtedly aware, illegal file trading and piracy are two of the most daunting issues facing the music industry today, and we at Warner Bros. Records are working very hard to deal with these problems. One of our efforts to thwart unauthorized copying of CDs is to watermark the CDs we distribute.

"Watermarking enables us to track the CD back to the original authorized recipient. As part of this effort, the enclosed advance Eric Clapton CD has been individually watermarked with a unique identification number embedded in the music. This watermark is not changed or destroyed by extracting clips of the music, or by using any compression technology such as MP3.

"This watermark has been assigned to you as the authorized recipient of this CD. By accepting this CD, you agree to not make any copies of this CD, to not play the CD in your computer and to not upload the CD or any part of it to the Internet or otherwise allow, or make, the CD or any part of it available on the Internet. You agree that you will not lend this CD to anyone, and that you alone will listen to this CD for promotional purposes. Accordingly, you will not play this CD for anyone.

"It is our responsibility to protect our music and we take that very seriously."

The CD itself even looked threatening to me. My name was embossed on the disc, along with a bar code and serial number.

Now, it would never have occurred to me to rip the disc and upload it to the Net. For one thing, the disc drive in my computer has been busted for over a year. For another, there aren't any really good file-sharing applications for Macintosh OS 9.2, which is what my vintage machine runs.

But just owning the disc makes me a little bit nervous. It's as if someone asked me to hold onto their marijuana stash or a cache of guns. Just by existing, the disc could get me into some kind of trouble.

So when a colleague of mine asked to borrow the disc on Friday, I told him no. He thought I was joking, or being overly dramatic, but I told him that since it's my name, not his, printed on the CD, it was my neck on the chopping block.

I'm still not sure what I'm going to do with it. I'll probably listen to it once or twice and then destroy it. I just don't like the idea of someone holding an Internet piracy charge over my head.

I do understand why WB and other labels are trying to protect their intellectual property. But instead of the music business going after teen-agers who download music, or labels threatening critics, they should take a long look in the mirror and figure out why their sales have been going down.

When I was growing up, new records (those black plastic things with holes in the middle) cost $3.99 on sale. People were willing to take a chance on a new artist. When new music costs $15, people are less willing to gamble that an album has more than one good song on it.

Secondly, the labels have made some monumental blunders in the types of music they offer. Throughout the last part of the 1990s, teen pop ruled the charts and the airwaves while straight-ahead rock and roll received less attention.

So when the teens who dug the Backstreet Boys grew up and stopped buying music in such frequency, there weren't new artists to fill that void. Meanwhile, the rock and hip-hop fans had turned to independent labels to get the music they craved.

The third factor has been the role of music in peoples' lives. Since there are many more entertainment options these days, it doesn't make as much sense to drop cash on, say, a movie soundtrack CD when you can buy a DVD of the entire film for the same price or less.

I also blame the concert industry. The first live rock show I ever attended was an Elvis Costello/Nick Lowe show at the Circle Theater back in 1978, when I was 13. I could afford to take a chance on a new artist because the ticket price was $1.95.

And throughout the 1980s, tickets to shows at Market Square Arena remained in the $10-$15 range at most. So people who weren't big fans of Judas Priest or R.E.M., to use two very different examples, could afford to check out those bands.

Now, concerts are a bigger investment. You're looking at dropping $100-$150 for a night out if you go to a live show at one of the big concert venues.

I understand that file sharing has been bad for the music industry. I would just theorize that there are other reasons for the slump in music sales, many of them self-inflicted. Watermarking review copies of CDs doesn't seem like a very effective solution.


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