Opinión Nacional

The melodies of the Internet

When we buy recorded music we buy a physical object that contains it: record, cassette, CD, DVD. Artists must have, apart from talent, which isn’t indispensable, contacts with a record company that selects them, records an album, promotes and distributes it. It happens too with authors and filmmakers. Industrial mediation is a necessary evil. There’s no other means of bringing King Oliver or Michael Jackson to you. It’s very bad that most of what they sell is paper, plastic, ferrous oxide, chromium, distribution costs, shop and inventory expenses. The money spent in content (music, words, and images) is minimal. You pay mostly for atoms.

The Internet overcomes all this. I can work, send my articles, buy flowers, and fall in love over the Internet. But I can’t buy music. Or can I? Not legally most of the time. Because there are many pirates providing that service through the nets. The only limitation is the narrow band. Even at 56Mb it’s stupid to send a CD over the Internet. It’s less expensive and more comfortable to record a cassette and send it through snail mail. But as soon as the bandwidth allows it we’ll be able to send CDs, films, high resolution photographs. The social pressure for more bandwidth is formidable. And sooner or later telcoms and modem and computer vendors will fulfill it. What will record companies, the film industry and publishing houses will do then?

Nothing for the time being. Their structure is too bureaucratic to adapt, let alone anticipate. They’ll react only when reality overwhelms them, as usual. It’s normal. Meanwhile we can advance some speculations. I don’t know if what I’ll suggest here is true — I’d be glad it it’s at least partially true. The only thing I’m sure of is that thanks to the Internet the marketing of music won’t be the same. I’ll talk about music, but what I’ll say is valid also, I hope, for any other content: cinema, the visual arts in general, and books.

Record companies won’t be able to compete with pirates. These will sell cheaper or will simply give out recordings. It’s been impossible to eradicate the piracy of records, and it will be harder to eliminate the piracy of bits, sold or given out through the nets. But let’s not limit ourselves to the professional pirate who profits selling music that he doesn’t legally own. Let’s talk also about the users who spontaneously send a record to friends, to their significant other, to their colleagues, their neighbors, those they get acquainted with at the hazard of chat lines, newgroups or email lists. Nothing will stop them. It’s like copying programs. If it can be done it will be done. It’s easier to put the Pacific Ocean in a bottle than stopping the process through legal enforcement. Pirates create a Web site where they make available a collection of recordings to the public, paid or unpaid. What authority will stumble on it? And while it happens — they suit the Internet service provider, a court dictates the removal of the site, etc. — they sell thousands of recordings. When they’re caught they change the site’s location. If they find and detect where the site is at all, as it could be in a recondite place, ultra Thyle. And what if they’re one, two, five hundred thousand sites? It’s easier to stop a stampede of wild horses. The Marlboro man can. Piracy is only limited by the difficulties of distribution, which can’t be done on Main Street, but under the table. What has no limit is homemade recording, as when you copy for me a record I like. It’s illegal. But, again, how many people do you know who have never made and/or received an illegal recording? You? How many FBIs, KGBs and Scotland Yards will be needed to control an army of guerrilla pirates who are mobile, labile, impossible to identify and much less locate?

What can be done is to compete with them. That is, to find the comparative advantages of record companies over pirates. What can be done is to answer this question: What can the record companies offer that pirates can’t?

A record company is an organization that owns a catalogue, big or small. This organization assembles a troupe of artists, a personnel devoted to the selection of that troupe, a professional service of sound recording, and then promotion and marketing. There record shops, radio and television stations undertake the process. That’s all a record company has, but it’s enough. The catalogue is the core. But the catalogue is of little use all alone. What makes the difference with pirates is volume. It’s quantity, not quality. And the pirate has the advantage of offering an orientating selection, good or bad, but that saves us the effort of blindly swimming oceans of titles.

Here’s the potential power of record companies: to sell me not only recordings but information. That is, structured content. At present it’s as if we spilled out on the floor at random the books in a library. It would become a useless library. We’d fall on books at random, most of which aren’t of any interest for us, or they will end up being of interest, when we make virtue out of necessity. It’s what happens in fact at the present libraries and bookshops. We must resign ourselves to what we find there because there’s no other way. Much as we must be content with the music sold by record shops or broadcast over the radio or the films movie theaters show or are sold or rented at video shops. The spilled out library would be the Library of Babel of Jorge Luis Borges. It’s the present situation of catalogues. Let’s take a very old record company, one who began to record on cylinders and still does it on CDs. If we enter its vaults we will have the vertigo or the inhabitant of Borges’ Library of Babel or his Total Library http://lenti.med.umn.edu/~ernesto/Borges/LaBibliotecaTotal.html. Or we’d die perhaps as the Donkey of Buridan, starving among succulent hay stacks because he couldn’t decide which one to eat first. We need a guide. And here’s where the record company has a potential of comparative advantages over pirates.

Record companies can structure their information. Offering you, for example, the recordings that antecede rock music. Or a complete course on Beethoven, or acquaint you with a less known composer like Marin Marais. They won’t sell me only recordings, but informative structures. Collections. Courses. Directions. Tendencies. Power. And not only music but texts, books, films, images, email lists, catalogues of information, catalogues of Web sites on some subject.

It can be done by entities other than record companies. The present record shops that grasp this tendency will organize information and will sell the corresponding music, or indicate where to buy it. It can be done by universities, research institutions on music, or some individuals whose knowledge on one subject or many lets them sell structured informations on music that can be bought to the record companies, big or small. They’ll organize baskets of recordings to be resold or pointed out in the catalogues to be bought to third parties. Even pirates can become perfectly legal consultants if they’re competent enough for the job.

From that perspective the present musical market looks rudimental, primitive, awkward, idiotic. I like a song and I have to by a CD with a number of songs that were put there to fill out the album. It’s like a cartoon by Venezuelan humorist Leoncio Martínez in which a poor man tells a street vendor:

«Sell me another donut.»
«As much as to complete one dollar?» the vendor asks.

«No, as much as to complete my lunch,» the impecunious man answers.

Artists have to produce filling songs, of dismal quality, to complete their lunch, because otherwise they don’t have a record, that is, goods to sell. Some records contain no rubbish, they’re like Shakespeare, because everything he wrote was good. Or the Beatles because everything they recorded was excellent. But not everybody is like that. They force us to buy garbage and crap. Hemingway said that in order to be a good writer you must have a built-in shockproof crap detector. It’s true for artistic production in general. It would be an important esthetic progress. One would go right to what one likes. And artists would focus on their inspiration, without distracting in the production of debris to complete one dollar. Or their lunch.

Some of these services would propose us a test to detect our tastes and offer us songs whose existence we had never imagined and would have never found otherwise. Our taste is enriched and would evolve in a more lucid and powerful manner. It would be wider, richer and we’d be richer ourselves. Today we enjoy what we find at random, serendipitously, but it’s too little. There must be hundreds of recordings somewhere waiting for you and about which you haven’t the faintest idea.

If record companies don’t do it pirates will. Or Bill Gates, who’s around there with a fat checkbook buying copyrights of content to fill his products. The first to grab it will own it.


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Other works and articles by the same author

Roberto Hernández-Montoya has a literature degree at the Central University of Venezuela. He is Director of La BitBlioteca (an electronic library), columnist at El Nacional, Letras, Imagen and Internet World Venezuela. He is a member of the editorial board of Venezuela Cultural,Venezuela Analítica and Imagen. He studied discourse analysis at the School of High Studies in Social Sciences, Paris. He was the founding President of the Venezuelan Association of Editors and Publisher of the Ateneo de Caracas.

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