Live! Music Review, published by Bill Glahn, was THE monthly on rarities collector's CDs when it was around. Later this year, BigO Books will be publishing Piss On It: The Best Of Live! Music Review, a collection of articles from the magazine. Here is an article to whet your appetite, while waiting for the book.
It was a typical hot and muggy New Jersey summer night. The Street Walkin' Cheetahs were belting out a high intensity set on the stage of City Gardens, a converted warehouse that sat on the border of North Trenton's ghetto and the working class suburb of Ewing Township. As usual, I was taping. The band didn't seem to mind. After all hadn't they put a dedication in their latest live album to "Bootleg Bill" (I assure you it's not me!).
Somewhere towards the end of their set the amphetamines started to wear off and the copious amounts of alcohol that I had been drinking took hold. I blacked out.
When I came to, the joint was empty, the band was packing their gear, and vocalist Frank Meyer was standing in front of the stage saying, "The show's over buddy. That's all there is."
I wandered out of the fully lit hall, through one of those dented metal doors that empties into the parking lot when the heavy air and sudden darkness sent my brain into a state of vertigo. I couldn't stand up. I could only see shadows. I lost all perspective of distance and location.
Then, as I lay on the ground, unable to move, I noticed that the shadows were moving towards me. This was a tough part of town. What were these gray figures up to? Did they mean to do me harm? How could I protect myself when I couldn't even stand up? The most dreadful thought jumped into my mind and panic gripped every pore in my body. They must want my tape! I started kicking and flailing my arms and legs at the black air.
It's the most frightening nightmares that you remember. It's when reality is safer than your dream world that your body shakes you back into consciousness before you ever have a chance to forget. The most frightening part of this dream was not the impending loss of a tape, but the loss of control, something that 25 years of sobriety had brought to me. I had been put by my brain into a space where the events around me were beyond my abilities to control them and something very valuable to me was in danger of being lost forever. Think of what it must be like for record company executives on the eve of Y2K.
In 1992 Randall Lyon, a sort of southern William Burroughs, sat in the studio of a Little Rock, AR public radio station doing what he did best rapping seemingly bizarre tales over the squeaks and squawks of his experimental performance outfit, The Band Of Ones. Lyon was an enigma in Little Rock, a town known as much for its southern conservatism as for being the biggest city in our President's home state. The television footage of the Little Rock school system's fight against integration is still shown weekly on such cable networks as The History Channel and The Discovery Channel. A contemporary of the late, great music journalist, Robert Palmer (they grew up in Little Rock, blocks apart, and died within a year of each other, both of Hepatitis C), Lyon was a homosexual and junkie in a city that had little tolerance for either. So Lyon spent much of his time in Memphis, occasionally returning to mix with the more tolerant artistic elements in Little Rock.
The Band Of Ones (which at times included Palmer) was a fringe element in musical terms. Lyon referred to it as "rock 'n' roll beyond the beat." Theirs was trance music that seemed heavily influenced by the music of Jujuka, a tribal music that Palmer had been one of the first western journalists to investigate. And even a bit of Allen Ginsberg's "ohming" if the mood struck Lyon. Theirs was not the music of guitars and drums and melody. It was ARPs, organs, oboes (Diddley-bos if you must) and the voice of Randall Lyon. BOO's keyboardist, Hugh Harris, recently passed on the tapes of several three-to-four-hour radio sessions to me. While I found the music to be intriguing, it was the visionary stories of Randall Lyon that piqued my interest. Like Burroughs, Lyon had a knack for creating bizarre landscapes to reveal his vision of the truth. And his vision, folks, was spot on.
"Ohhhh, the yoke of oppression is lifting,". Lyon has nearly completed a three-hour story based on Grandma Styles Tornado Proof Trailer Park, a place filled with impoverished crazies whose dreams of a better life are thwarted only by their own inability to see that they have the key to empowerment. Apathy is addressed in the form of "that horrible 'I don't care' woman" who "has her own career to think about" being a cosmetics salesperson. But in the end, it's Helen Styles, the senile matriarch of the trailer park, who is the vortex into the future as she sews zippers into all of the creatures around the park so that they can be implanted with the "Godvirus." And what is the Godvirus? It's the Internet where "control is in the hands of the operator."
Remember it's still 1992. Lyon springs his conclusions on an audience that for the most part is still completely ignorant of the Internet. "When the audioradiative comes, a new sun will rise in the west People will ascend into the whole wide Cyberspace it's taken our universe one million years to evolve the first thing that will happen is their economic structure will begin to collapse. The huge banks and multinational interests who've been raided on for years and years by computer hackers and data pirates will begin to make tremendous in-roads into privacy, devoting all of their time to allocating precious protein resources to those that deserve it most."
Lyon's vision was of bloodless anarchy people using computers and Internet access to topple the ruling class. And at this point in time, MP3 hadn't even been invented.
Far-fetched? The government doesn't think so. For the first time in history, there has been a copyright law passed that doesn't include profit as a necessary ingredient for prosecution. THE NET Act of 1997 is the equivalent of our government representatives (and the corporations that fund their elections) kicking and flailing to regain control back from the hands of the "operator" (the citizen behind the keyboard).
It wasn't supposed to be this way. While William Clinton spoke to the public about a great "information highway" his financial backers stood behind him nodding and winking that what he really meant was an "economic highway." A highway where goods could flow to the consumer directly from the manufacturer, by-passing the retail merchant and reaping maximum financial gain for the corporation. But as the corporations became more dependent on this highway, so did their vulnerability to a disenchanted public become greater. To lessen that vulnerability, our government, under heavy lobbying from corporate entities, started passing felony criminal (and international trade) legislation with regards to intellectual property and copyright.
The reader should be aware that the genesis of copyright law was born in economic considerations for creative persons, not for the prevention of political upheaval or corporate welfare. The major entertainment industry in the guise of the RIAA has been one of the strongest proponents of these laws. With rapidly advancing and affordable duplicating technology and the same express lanes to fans and consumers that the companies have, musical artists no longer have to deal with Universal, Sony or the rest.
Try telling some pimply faced 15-year-old computer whiz that he has an obligation to pay US$18.98 list for a CD that costs 30 cents to make while he flips burgers for $5 per hour. It ain't flyin'. He has no obligation to Sony. He's going to download it off the Internet. And how about that single-parent mother of three who just got licked off of welfare and has to pass off half of her income to day care? Music has been affordable in this country for all our lives and it is no longer that way. For an hour's worth of diversion from her situation, that mother can buy a CD-R pirate of today's top hits for about US$4-5 and "fuck Sony." Yes, indeed, the "fuck you" chain is getting longer.
The RIAA reports that piracy was up 20 per cent in 1998. It's expected to be an even higher figure this year. When we published our "War" issue several years ago, the record industry had scored its greatest victory ever against bootleggers virtually shutting down the entire European bootlegging force. What must have been a joyous occasion in the offices of Hilary Rosen and Frank Creighton lasted for all of about a couple of weeks before CD-R bootlegs began appearing in earnest. The pirates (duplicators of official releases) would soon follow.
The reason that bootlegs have thrived is the reason they have always thrived a thirst by collectors to understand more of the creative process of their favorite artists through unreleased and rare recordings. The reason pirates have flourished is because of corporate greed. As manufacturing prices have plummeted, list prices on CDs have spiraled upwards with Universal now raising prices on old mid-line ("undervalued for years" they state) to US$15.98 and new releases to US$18.98. It should be noted that there have been several Justice Department investigations into record industry price-fixing in the United States and a multitude of investigations in Europe.
The extent to which the industry is losing control of the market place to pirates and bootleggers was illustrated in a recent article in Rolling Stone. In an article that seemed spoon-fed to the magazine by the RIAA, Frank Creighton stated that the RIAA was turning more of its attention back to the streets because of increases in "at-home CD-R production plants." What wasn't elaborated in the article was that the RIAA had devoted 80 per cent of its anti-piracy budget (according to their own web site in early '99) to Internet investigations. Anyone remotely familiar with cruising the net for bootlegs knows that the RIAA's efforts there have resembled the government's war on drugs. Now they have the added burden of quickly escalating pirate CD-Rs popping up at swap meets all over California, on the streets of Harlem and other depressed areas, and even at computer conventions where they are sold side-by-side with pirated computer software.
People are starting to view duplicating music in the same manner that they view dubbing a copy of a VCR for their brother-in-law. As long as you're not selling it, what's the harm? Right? Obviously an example needed to be made of somebody. Enter Jeffrey Levy.
Levy, a student at the University of Oregon, was the subject of an FBI raid after he posted "hundreds" of music and software files on his university-supplied web site. This was not a profit-seeking venture the files were available as free downloads from anyone visiting his web site. Faced with three years in the federal pokey under the NET Act, Levy pleaded guilty (against his lawyers' recommendation) to the felony in exchange for no jail time and a US$25,000 fine. Obviously, the music industry has a heavy hammer in the NET Act. And it's one that not even a heavy-weight recording act like Tom Petty will challenge. When his record label told Petty to remove an MP3 file from his website, he did so in haste. This is the same guy who, over a decade ago, refused to give his record label a finished album until they agreed not to raise the list price. If Petty, with his considerable resources, backs down from this type of challenge, how can you expect a college student trying to carve out a future to fight back? So now Jeffrey Levy is a felon. He has lost his right to vote, own a fire arm, and other constitutionally protected rights that non-felons have. Bank loans and jobs can be more difficult to obtain. In essence, Jeffrey Levy is fucked for life.
Levy is not the only college student in America posting music files on his website. In early November the Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh took away university-supplied websites from 71 students for placing unauthorized MP3 files on them. From Dave Marsh's American Grandstand column (reprinted with permission from the author):
I had drawn the same conclusion several years earlier when at a South by Southwest industry convention. In the trade hall, the RIAA had set up a booth trying to lure young musicians into signing onto an organization called Musicians United For Strong Internet Copyright (M.U.S.I.C.). I looked at the literature and noticed that the letterhead contained the same address and phone number as the RIAA. I asked the fellow behind the booth who he worked for. He stated he was employed by the legal affairs division of the RIAA. I asked if MUSIC was a subdivision of the RIAA. "No," he stated, "this is totally a musician's organization to try to petition our government to pass and enforce laws to fight piracy on the Internet."
There were no musicians behind the booth, but they did have literature from charter members Dave Matthews, Billy Joel and Tony Bennett stating how important it is for the owners of the music to maintain control. All three are musicians, to be sure. They also have industry interests that go well beyond that of writing songs. Hey even the Nazis had puppets in France. But without the co-operation of at least some musicians, their claims that legislation like the NET Act would ring hollow. So, I'm sure that some musicians were blind-sided into signing a petition in support of legislation that was later turned around to restrict the free expression of artists like Chuck D and Tom Petty (both forced by labels to remove their own work from their websites).
If you take Dave Matthews at his word, his position here is puzzling. Long-time readers of this magazine will remember the fiasco where the Matthews organization hired an "over-zealous" lawyer (as described by Matthews' manager, Coran Capshaw) to bring civil action and conduct raids on a number of Northeastern record shops. The Matthews company line was, "We encourage tape-trading among our fans, so long as it's not for financial gain." Yet now Matthews is in support of laws that have severe implications for people who distribute his music with absolutely no financial motivation. Go figure.
Other artists have embraced the new technology as a way to communicate with their fans. Many who do not come under corporate control are posting their own free MP3 files. Others are using e-mail as a way to keep their fans informed of upcoming gigs.
I was privileged recently to receive a taped interview with Phil Ochs from 1969. Ochs made the observation that since the Viet Nam war had no moral basis, it was unwinnable and, therefore, with the conclusion already known, the war was over. He refused to discuss the war from that point on.
That is the
way I view the copyright wars of the '90s. It has become increasingly
obvious that, despite industry proclamations that they hold the moral
high ground, they are liars. Fewer and fewer people (outside of government)
believe those lies. Few people look upon the home-duplication of music
as a crime despite the fact that it is (according to the law) and one
with some serious consequences. The computer companies that manufacture
CD-R burners walk a fine line with their language, but it's obvious from
their ads that they are promoting home music duplication. Laws only work
if they are looked upon as moral and valid by the public at large. You
can't throw everybody in jail. For every website by a Jeffrey Levy that
comes down, thousnads more spring up. Fear and loathing has come to the
corporate towers of the Amercan music industry, and they are kicking and
flailing against the inevitable. The war is over. Now go out and burn
2003 update: Phil Ochs may have declared the Viet Nam war over in 1969 but it took the US Government another six years to realize it. The RIAA may be even a slower learner. Since I wrote this piece, they successfully lobbied for the intrusive Millennium Copyright Act and some ghastly policing measures in the ridiculously named Patriot Act. But that hasn't helped them any. For the first time in the RIAA's history, sales were on the decline for two consecutive years (2001 and 2002) and appear to be spiraling down even more in 2003. Not only that, some courts are starting to look closer at their motivations. On April 25, 2003, a Federal judge ruled that popular peer-to-peer services, Morpheus and Grokster, were not liable for Internet piracy. No doubt expecting such a ruling, the RIAA has recently revived their tactic by using existing laws to have four college students arrested for file sharing. It was a public relations disaster for them in 1999 and it will be even more so in 2003. Meanwhile, Live! Music Review's irrepressible record store owner/reporter Mike Felten states that while releases by major label artists are slow, his sales of independent artists are actually making strong gains. Sometimes it's not a good idea to kick potential customers in the teeth and then ask them to shop at your store. Mike knows this. That's why he'll probably outlast Sony.
This is an early glimpse at the upcoming book "Piss On It: The Best Of
Live! Music Review." A featured chapter will be made available each
month on the BigO website leading up to the books release in the Fall
of 2003. Review copies will be available to journalists upon the book's
release. Requests should be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please include your name, address and magazine affiliation.
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