Tuesday, January 22, 2008

‘The Heavenly Jukebox’


Thanks to Coolfer Glenn for pointing out that this fascinating article by Charles C. Mann on the future of the music business, published in The Atlantic Monthly in 2000, is now available online. (The Atlantic no longer restricts access to its archives.) Glenn calls it “a very prescient examination of the issues surrounding the industry’s reaction to file-sharing and digital distribution.”

Some excerpts:

  • “Technophiles claim that the major labels, profitable concerns today, will rapidly cease to exist, because the Internet makes copying and distributing recorded music so fast, cheap, and easy that charging for it will effectively become impossible... Through their trade association, the Recording Industry Association of America, the labels are fighting back with every available weapon: litigation, lobbying, public relations, and, behind the trenches, jiggery-pokery with technical standards.”

  • “Compared with writers and filmmakers, musicians are both more imperiled by the Internet and better able to slip past the threat. The music industry seems to have less room to maneuver. In consequence, it has been pushing for decisive judicial and legislative action. The Internet will become a principal arena for the clash of ideas that the Founders believed necessary for democracy. Allowing the travails of a single industry — no matter how legitimate its concerns — to decide the architecture of that arena would be a folly that could take a long time to undo.”

  • “For better or worse, the star-maker machinery behind the popular song, as Joni Mitchell called it, is the aspect of the music industry that would be most imperiled by the effective loss of copyright to the Net. If the majors can’t reap the benefits of their marketing muscle, says Hal Varian, an economist and the dean of the School of Information Management and Systems, at Berkeley, ‘their current business model won’t survive.’ The impact on their profits could be devastating. Musicians have much less to lose, and much less to fear.”

One of the four parts of the article was included in the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2001 anthology.

Mann is a first-rate reporter of the old-school new-journalism type, the type that do a lot of research and know the art of storytelling. He’s also the author of one of my favorite recent nonfiction books, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

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