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Okay computers

This week, I’ve been following two stories in the popular music scene. The first concerns Bruce Springsteen’s just-released album “Magic.” I’ve listened pretty faithfully to Springsteen’s music since 1973 — when, as a sophomore in high school I saw him perform at the Allen Theater in Cleveland — so every time he makes new music, I feel my past rise up before me.

The second story, which is more deserving of comment here, concerns Radiohead’s decision to release its new album online, without the support of a record label or a (now traditional) digital vendor like iTunes. Also, the band has priced “In Rainbows” on a sliding scale, asking fans only to “pay what you want.” Plenty of bands have given away music on the Internet, but the fact that Radiohead — perhaps the best band in the world — is walking away from traditional profit margins is something of a surprise (though fans will also have the option of buying a pricey disc set) . Needless to say, this is not good news for the music industry.

On college campuses, Radiohead’s decision has a particular resonance. For several years now, the RIAA and Motion Picture Industry have diligently waged a battle against scofflaw students who’ve used college networks to download music and films. College officials have followed the law and joined industry watchdogs to dissuade student from illegal downloading. Here at Middlebury, we’ve issued stern warnings, confiscated computers (a rare occurrence), and contracted with Napster (to give students a legal outlet for music).

Yet all the while we’ve watched the world grow flatter by the moment. The Radiohead release, while not a revolution in itself, shows how an artistic and economic decision made in Oxford, England can have an immediate impact in Los Angeles and New York. The release may persuade reformed downloaders to think they’ve been right all along, and the band’s online offering may be a tipping point in the evolution of the music industry. More generally, though, the release underscores the creative power that the digital age now makes possible in a variety of fields.

With YouTube and Facebook one bookmark away, this kind of innovation may seem like just another sign that we left the twentieth century a long time ago. Still, I think it merits extended reflection. On the Middlebury campus (and beyond) we know from the logo protest how students can mobilize strongly held feelings, beliefs and ideas — via Facebook — to make change. Viva la resistance, yes, but let’s rotate this equation somewhat and ask what might be created (or, to use an old-fashioned term, “produced”) through and across the digital spectrum. Middlebury has a stake in this issue as it now seeks to build on a network of institutions — language schools, Bread Loaf, schools abroad, and Monterey — to become the world’s premier global liberal arts college. How will our virtual resources figure in the union of “Liberal Arts. Global Action”?

Meanwhile, “In Rainbows” is available for download on October 10.

11 Responses to “Okay computers”

  1. Tim – glad to see you let your fan flag fly on this blog! I agree that this Radiohead decision might be a major turning point, but we should never underestimate the stubborn inertia of a business model – the music industry still makes money, just not in the bucketloads it’s used to. And they won’t go down without a major fight.

    The key breakthrough will be when an artist gains a following on Myspace, self-releases music on a variable pay model (which other artists have done before Radiohead, but nobody as high profile), and manages to both earn a living and gain enough notoriety for two old guys in Vermont to be able to blog about it.

    And I paid 3 pounds for In Rainbows myself – a fair price for both artist and listener.

  2. Hannah Robertson says:

    I know this isn’t related to your post, but I’d like to know what you think of the Cook Commons “Surrender Your Booty” party: http://middblog.blogspot.com/2007/10/fam-says-no-to-surrendering-booty.html

  3. Meanwhile, as related in that recent NYT magazine article on Rick Rubin, the industry is trying to move people to a subscription-based, fee-for-access model at the same time they’re trying to grab a cut of revenues that have traditionally, sensibly gone to artists alone–concert ticket sales, merchandising income. Desperately defensive postures all, almost admissions that the traditional label simply isn’t needed any more, as editor, manufacturer or distributor.

    I’ve seen some people complain that Radiohead wouldn’t be in a position to try this without many years of major label backing behind them, but that just sounds like fear of the new to me. As Jason says, the next, inevitable barrier is for a new band to hit big without any traditional institutional support–although given pop-cultural fragmentation, the criteria for “hitting big” will have to be rethought. (Even the labels can’t seem to create genuine, mass appeal superstars anymore, in any genre.)

    Also, last I heard, the Radiohead album will be made available as a regular-priced CD at some point, giving another option to those who want something to hold in their hands, but who don’t want to shell out $80 for a hardcover book.

  4. Jeff Rehbach says:

    Even as some musicians (popular, world, and even classical) start to release albums freely, we learn of the $220,000 fine imposed by a trial jury on someone who allegedly had 24 available for sharing (the fact that they weren’t even necessarily downloaded by anybody else was to be ignored by the judge’s instruction to the jury). The case is being appealed.

    Although here at Middlebury no one has yet received a “settlement letter” from RIAA in lieu of being taken to court, it could happen (it has at more than 200 other colleges and universities). Given that Middlebury has very reasonable terms with myTracks for monthly access, and that free services are beginning to appear through other websites such as Ruckus and SpiralFrog (sure, you see advertisements while you’re downloading, but hey, that’s a small price to pay compared to a typyical $3000-5000 settlement with the RIAA that students at other colleges have paid — although some are fighting back in court).

    Be an advocate – let your favorite groups know you want their music, you want them to get their fair share (the get pennies compared to the royalties the record distributors get for each iTunes download). And, let Congress hear from you — its members hear daily from the entertainment and publishing industry that the world is full of copyright pirates. Let your voice be heard that information – what we need for our studies, and what we personally choose to listen to and watch – has a legitmate place within our culture.
    -Jeff Rehbach, LIS Policy Advisor

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