Food For Thought

Overstuffing 496 hours of holiday spirit into a turkey named Napster might just cook the goose that laid the musical egg

by Lee Abraham

Ah, the joy of illusion! Thatís right - the holidays are here again. Now hold on all you family value stocking stuffers out there. Iím not knocking the holidays. Just the way it makes people act. Itís the same drill every year: give a bunch of gifts, act cheerful, and say ĎHappy Holidays!!í to as many people as possible between Thanksgiving and New Years. Maybe even toss some change to the same street person youíve passed by all year long but never acknowledged with eye contact, let alone a few of your hard earned shekels.

Donít get me wrong, well intended charity is a good thing. Same with exchanging gifts. But the fact that it takes the holiday season to bring out all that is good in humanity, well, the whole thing just seems delusional. Not to mention manipulative. Can you say, ĎBig business?í Listen: the holidays are a short term buzz fueled by way too much excess. Iíd much rather see people divvy up Decemberís apx. 496 hours of holiday spirit (16 waking hours times Decemberís 31 holi-days) into an hour and a half of kindness every day of the year. Now that would really be something to celebrate.

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Big businessí stranglehold on music distribution is over. Not today, and maybe not even tomorrow, but soon. Sure, the greedy bastards still have a pretty tight grip on which artists get rich, and which struggle to survive. And yeah, they continue fighting like the devil they are to keep things that way. Make no mistake, the recording industryís Ďstar making machineryí wonít go quietly. Thatís fine, just as long as it goes. And over time, it will.

But the -bad- news for the recording industryís fat cats isnít necessarily -good- news for the jamband sceneís hardworking, independent bands. Obviously, there are plenty of things bands can do in an attempt to chart their own destiny. At the same time though, there is one critical variable beyond their control - fans.

Over the past few months, Iíve written a couple of columns on the exciting new opportunities technology has created for independent bands. Bottom line: it is easier and less expensive than ever for bands to produce their own CDs, and the ability of the internet to distribute music as well as nurture a potentially worldwide cyber fanbase, has brought an unprecedented power shift in the recording industry. Technologyís leading edge is cutting both ways though, and the winners and losers are still sorting each other out. While itís easier than ever before for bands to remove the middle man in recording and distributing music, itís also easier for potential consumers to get that music from a 3rd party for free, and as a result, cheat the artist out of getting paid.

Face it: The hardware will keep getting speedier, and there will always be free, music sharing software like Napster, Gnutella, Aimster, and other increasingly stealthy mutations, springing up faster than big business, or independent bands for that matter, can deal with. And as time goes on, more and more people will download music at no cost, as opposed to paying for it. Thatís just the way it is.

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Flash back 100 years. Feeling particularly adventurous? Flash back 500 years. Or a 1000. Look around. Iím willing to wager that you wonít be able to find a radio to listen to, or a music store to shop in, no matter how hard you try. Hereís the point: while it may be hard to imagine, there was a time when musicians did not have recorded music as an income source. In fact, making money off recorded music is fairly recent phenomenon thatís only been going on for the last 60 years or so. And as we all know - there was plenty of great music being made way before that. So take heart, ye of little faith. There will always be music to fill the air.

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Flash forward however far you want. Musicians will sell CDís or downloads to their loyal fans either on the traditional item by item basis, or as part of the artistís Ďcommunityí with an annual membership fee. And while there are unprecedented opportunities to have original music heard by more people that any other time in history, the vast majority of people who hear that music will be outside the artistís community, and only a small percentage will pay for it. Regardless of everything else, whether or not the internet is good or bad for independent jambands is ultimately up to their fans, and more importantly, the degree of loyalty they show to their favorite artists.

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Hey, thereís no crime in burning a few CD-Rs. We all have cassette tapes in our collection containing music recorded from someone elseís CD, or in the old days, LP. Trading music back and forth with friends is one thing. Over the past year though, Napster and other software like it, have enabled widespread exchanges of copywritten music between strangers from around the world, without the artist being compensated. And because of the huge numbers involved, record sales are suffering. While itís clearly unfair to all artists, major label performers included, getting cut out of the cash loop is particularly tough on independent bands. Lacking the support of a record label, most independent bands are constantly operating on a hand to mouth basis. And that my friends, is a bird of different feather, regardless of the season. From the happy holidays perspective, not being compensated for your work is more like getting your goose cooked than having your turkey trimmed.

Feeling the holiday spirit? Great! Nothing wrong with random acts of seasonal kindness. But if you are a music freak of any age and would like to see your favorite independent bands stay afloat financially, think about actually -buying- a copy of their album you got for free over the internet, or recorded off a friend. Better yet, buy a -few- and give Ďem out as gifts. And not just during the 496 hours of holiday hoopla - but all year long. Think of buying CDs as the gift that keeps on giving. That way the musicians and other people behind the scenes working all year round to bring you the best and most creative music they can, will have a happy holiday season too. ###