in the day, we all listened to the same music. Maybe we didn’t
all like the same music, but there was a commonality, a culture.
Everybody knew the No. 1 hit of the day, because it was ubiquitous.
And this was so even at a time when media wasn’t bashing your
brains in with always-on messaging. Music was on the radio,
and radio was in the kitchen and in the car and under your
pillow. And music was on Ed Sullivan, and we all watched together.
Of course this was a function of a profound lack of choices,
and the fact that so much very good music made it to our collective
consciousness was more because of the lack of consolidation
of the music industry and dumb luck than anything else. And
it’s hard to argue that the increased choices brought on by
the technological innovations of the last 30 years, and particularly
the last 10, are a bad thing.
Still, the fragmentation and individualization of music listening
and acquisition has all but destroyed the collective listening
experience. I look at the music charts in the newspaper and
am often dumbfounded by what’s there. Groups and singers that
I’ve never heard, or heard of, are going multi-platinum. Not
that Top 40 is completely dead, mind you; I just got back
from a vacation where I got a heavy dose of some kind of “hit
radio” thanks to a rental car with Sirius and a 13-year-old
dominating the knobs. It wasn’t all bad. Some was blatantly
phony and manufactured, but then, we had the Monkees, right?
But through all the divisions, at least the music was accessible
if you wanted to go get to it. Music superstores like Tower
Records could be counted on to stock everything. The Internet,
at first, broadened this vista, and virtually every obscure
import death-metal or electronica CD could be found at Amazon
or GEMM, just a point and click away.
But the move away from CDs is changing this dramatically.
The move to downloadable music has now made the simple act
of acquiring music a sometimes complex, maddening, and ridiculous
Two things recently highlighted the absurdity of all this.
Two weeks ago it was announced the venerable Australian group
AC/DC’s albums would be available for download for the first
time ever. The catch? The albums would be available exclusively
on Verizon’s V CAST store. Which means that you must have
a “V CAST Music enabled phone, Verizon Wireless Calling Plan,
and to be within the V CAST coverage area.” The catch-within-the-catch?
Since AC/DC is only allowing complete album downloads,
and not single songs, the downloads are too big to go wireless
into your phone, so you have to download them to your home
computer, and then jack them into your phone. Somehow.
Now, I like AC/DC as much as the next person, but all this
makes me feel like I’m on some highway to hell. V CAST coverage
area? Full albums? And, oh, the V CAST system doesn’t work
on Macs, so if you are one of those self-respecting individuals
smart enough to buy an iBook or the like, then you are about
to be SoL, and I salute you. Unless, of course, you go buy
the damn AC/DC CD and rip it. Or just go to Limewire and steal
it, which, as it turns out, is by far the easiest thing to
And then this week Universal, the biggest of the major labels,
followed EMI and announced that it would start selling a big
chunk of its catalog without any DRM (digital rights management)—that
is, without built-in restrictions on how many copies you can
make, or where you can play the music. The catch? DRM-free
music would be available pretty much everywhere but at the
I guess this is Universal’s way of punishing Steve Jobs, or
something. Jobs has had a tempestuous relationship with all
of the labels over things like DRM and the iTunes store’s
straight-up 99-cent pricing. So Universal licenses DRM-free
music (which Jobs wants) for 99-cent downloads (the industry
standard that Jobs created) to everybody but Jobs.
Who really gets hurt here? You do, of course, and the artists
as well. You’re not going to be bothered with multiple retail
stores, some weird damn cell-phone plan, and the use of music
to herd customers from one place to another. You’ll listen
to something else. Or if you really want the music, like I
said, it’s infinitely easier just to steal the song or get
it from a friend than to jump through the hoops that are part
of some insane “strategic partnership” between distant media
giants jockeying for position in “the new digital space.”
Indeed, stealing is a dirty deed. But you must admit that,
if you are careful, it can be done dirt-cheap.
Rapp is an intellectual-property lawyer with offices in Albany
and Housatonic, Mass. He teaches art-and-entertainment law
at Albany Law School, and regularly appears as part of the
Copyright Forum on WAMC’s Vox Pop. Contact info can
be found at www.paul rapp.com. Comments about this article
can be posted at rapponthis .blogspot.com.