Why Record Companies Hate Us All

Record industry as malignant God? Yeah, something like that.

A curiously bitter antagonism has developed over the last few years between record companies and their consumers, the sort of counterintuitive pogrom that one would expect from religious totalitarians, for whom sins against God and their own egos blur in the beer goggles of power. People have been sent to jail, fined exorbitantly, tracked down with cyber bloodhounds, and demonized by multi-millionaire artists berating their fans like you would a trusted servant who packed your platinum candelabra into their duffle. “But we were so good to you people.”

Republicans in Congress, like Orrin Hatch, clamored to join in the empty moral grandstanding, not because they wouldn’t turn around five minutes later and use the music industry to generate Holy Red State outrage, but because they understood that the widest possible definition of intellectual property served the blood money interests of their corporate pimps. Whereas we used to own the record, cassette, or CD once we bought it, the new laws made us sharecroppers, with a narrowly circumscribed rental agreement for every single piece of music. As a music writer, I’ve noticed the encroachment of this philosophy in my relationship to publicists, as the free copies that used to just arrive with the hope that you’d feel like writing about it, come with more and more conditions, hanging allegations, and in the worse cases, physically scarring copyright protection. As the record industry seeks to put the consumer back in their proper beggar’s stance, so too does its publicist arm seek to bring writers to heel, making us wipe a big, shiny ring of Vaseline around our mouths and wimper for the honor of doing them favors.

I call this the Tom Cruise paradigm. Give me a second while I unpack. I was stuck in a dentist office one day forced with the choice of focusing on the smell of burning eggs and high pitched drill whines or picking up one of those celebrity magazines that show such riveting events as Kirsten Dunst walking her dog and Kirstey Alley clawing her bathing suit out of her munching ass. In this particular issue was an interview with Tom Cruise written by some gushing rat-dog of a writer, who displayed barely submerged homoerotic ardor for the actor, writing about his religion as if it weren’t a spooky cult and describing Cruise with such bowl-lapping bliss that it was as if Jesus had winked and done a Mean Joe Green toss with his jockstrap. In the world of the A-list, this is as it should be. You don’t give writers interviews, you grant them an audience as a reward for what you know that they’re already going to write. Big-time publicists pride themselves on this power reversal, the point of stardom where the disempowered writer lays on top of the writer’s ego like silly putty, peeling away to feign independent cheerleading.

The Republican party calls this journalism while the rest try to keep our stomach contents from taking an involuntary exit. This public relations paradigm has crept far outside its more innocuous uses in the garnering of massive amounts of attention for the incandescently average. For the spookiest application of public relations, read the entire works of Sheldon Rampton and check out his website PR Watch. For my purposes, it’s only important to deal with the minor evils of Hollywood PR leeching into music promotion. Which is still like Newt in Aliens saying, “They mostly come at night, mostly.”

As the music industry ramped up its consumer witch hunt, so too has it begun to passive-aggressively erode the perceived power of writers, by slowly turning the kindness of coverage into the privilege of access. The whole promo agreement has always been premised on a troubling system of ownership rules, the kind of arrangement that I think the Scots used to murder British soldiers over. The promotional copy delivered to your door may or may not have been asked for, but at no point in your lifetime does that CD become your property. The record company permanently owns that CD and may, as the text written on it indicates, ask for the return of that gift-on-a-string at any point, even years down the road. Curiously, at no point are you allowed to charge them storage fees for being forced to house the product they dispense to you with the hopes of a quid pro quo result.

But if the record company can’t squeeze out the dollop of generosity required to transfer the deed of the CD, how can the arrangement possibly be quid pro quo? Presumably the threat dangles above your head “just because”. After all, it’s illegal for everyone to trade music online, so the added sharecropper’s lease on the product, has the sole legal effect of background intimidation. Since many music writers make nothing or little for the writing they do, the warning is clearly intended to dissuade you from making a little petty cash from their piece of shit CD, which probably cost them a few nickels of Third World labor to make. Many of the CDs come with threats of legal action and not just the sort of FBI warning before movies that scummy DVD makers have made impossible to fast forward through. These America’s Most Wanted promos will have some amber alert phone number and e-mail in case you pick up the CD at a used record store and feel so righteously inclined as to report morally wayward music critics to your local constable. While I don’t seriously believe that record companies are going to start forcing critics to perp walk for hocking a Sum 41 promo, I do believe that this kind of legalistic posturing has the net effect of putting the writer in their place, reminding them that a pattern of negative reviews might simply result in nothing more to review … ever. Ultimately, the publicist can rig the coverage playing field by creating favoritism rankings based on the writers most likely to give good lick for the pitiful trifle of freebies.

But the warnings become dull through their constant exclamation; it’s difficult to take seriously the idea that storm troopers will crash through your front windows over a few pawned off pieces of garbage, though it’s good to remember that nothing is beneath this megalomaniacal industry. Knowing that dire Big Brother ghost stories can only go so far, record companies have taken a more overt and scarring route to clipping a critic’s wings.

One CD I received recently only played in my stereo, not the computer and not the car. Presumably, the technology they use is insufficiently precise and can’t tell the difference between a car stereo and computer, though I wouldn’t put it past them if they just wanted to flex a bit, confining you to your home to listen to the record, preferably with the press release in hand as you copy in crayon the suggested list of adjectives and comparisons. It’d be much more fun if they just included a mad lib review of the record, but I know they wouldn’t risk the new Jet record being described as a “cummy example of ass crack rock”. Such confinement seeks to petulantly rebel against the portability of music and the freewheeling divorce from their hand-fed formats. Though they gallop to keep apace, much of the intellectual property wars have been fought over the consumer desire to specifically tailor product attributes, ripping songs from their albums, mashing one track into another, building sample crumbs into entirely new pieces of art. Because the industry has been slow to adapt to consumer need, it has simply used the legislative apparatus to criminalize those desires until it can find a way to charge people for having them. By making these CDs umbilically tied to traditional audio technologies, record companies and publicists prevent writers from even explicitly legal sharing of the tracks or back-up copies. After all, lowly cur, that shit ain’t yours.

But more than the lawyerly bewares and corralling limitations on where you can play the CD, a far more pernicious method of copyright protection has emerged, one that requires the critic to completely suspend any semblance of ethics in order to receive that precious advance release, the VIP preview of this or that puddle splash artist. Most frequently referred to as “drops”, this method of copyright protection actually destroys the music in order to save it from potential thieves. What’s most hilarious about this method is that it’s usually employed in the service of artists with barely more than a handful of a following, the kind of people for whom the theft of their product is actually the service of greater dissemination. These “drops” (or droppings if you prefer) take many forms, including having splices of the artists themselves intruding on the song every minute-and-a-half or so to tell you that it’s a promo, to announce the street date of their record, or any other manner of carnival barking. It’s like having an album with a bunch of those grating hip-hop skit interludes dumped all over the song.

Oddly, the publicists who send these CDs actually expect you to review them. Not just review them, as murderous as it is to sit through over an hour of having someone snap a towel into your ear repeatedly, but review them without mentioning that the label sent you a fucked-up piece of trash for a CD. In other words, just pretend it’s a real record, and cough up some ink that they can slap on the outside to lure consumer cash on whatever credibility crumbs you might have as a writer. This is insulting at many levels, most of which music critics deserve. Now I don’t have any delusions about the soothsaying powers of music critics, but there is something to be said for someone actually listening to the record that you’re going to hear and giving you an honest reaction, instead of winking with the artist’s publicist and giving some made-up review for what the album might sound like if it were, oh, say, something that wasn’t a viciously annoying, scuffed-to-hell art murder.

By assuming that you’ll work in this medium, labels slyly imply that critics don’t really listen to the records anyway, but follow waves of groupthink that come for those first few waves of a record’s release, as with Dizzee Rascal, Bloc Party, and Joanna Newsom, just to name a few. Why should a critic extend this act of analytical charity, aurally bandaging the company’s assassinated product? Presumably, they assume that you don’t want to be left out of the first curve of accolades. Here the fact that music critics actually participate in this fool’s bargain is the most amazing rub of all. Then again, all systems of corruption depend upon media intermediaries with anorexic ethics. Picture it: here you have this presumably intelligent person willing to suspend judgment of the nearly unlistenable CD that they’re given so that, what? No one but the mentally impaired would actually listen to one of these drop-laden CDs for pleasure or be able to sell it for cash. In this version of the critic/publicist relationship, the writer doesn’t even get the dubious rental privileges of fully functioning CDs that must be surrendered to the music industry suits when they come a knock knocking. This liar’s kiss represents music publicity’s complete fusion with the Hollywood paradigm. After all, you should be happy for the taste, even if you don’t like it.

At moments like these, I realize that saying “fuck you” really is the best advice for nearly all situations. Consumers should continue to undermine the industry’s unapologetic assault on their liberty at the same time that they support the artists they love by buying their music when they can afford it. If sharing is stealing, then Jesus should have been sued by Wonder Bread. As for writers, it’s as easy as bruising a few toes and drawing a line in the sane, reminding publicists that, love some of them as you might, you’re not willing to allow copyright paranoia keep you from telling folks what a record sounds like. Granted, they’re just trying to do their job, but maybe you should remind them of what that job is. It’s not to create celebrities, it’s to get as many people as possible to hear about the artists that they believe in, or at the very least, are paid to believe in.

As time goes on, I suspect that the music industry’s fierce bout of irrationality will decline as the magic of having a hard drive full of disembodied tracks loses its crack cocaine luster. The success of indie-gone-mainstream artists like the Strokes, the Hives, and the White Stripes will cause sudden epiphanies that lasting popularity and marketability can occasionally have something to do with quality. People will return to having bookcases filled with CDs in addition to their jam-packed I-Pods, because new technology never completely severs our romantic attachment to the old. Aesthetics can never be reduced purely to convenience. Critics should never surrender the authority they shouldn’t have to the publicists that shouldn’t be siphoning it. And even Tom Cruise shouldn’t be Tom Cruise.