“You can always go on RickiLake.com”

We seem to remember an entire music video by a then-unindicted George Michael – “Freedom ’90” – in which the former international Wham<bang> megastar did not appear, subbing sexy male and even female models in his place as a protest against his treatment at the hands of Sony’s contract lawyers.

The aggrieved millionaire felt he had been reduced to a mere provider of software.

He’s right. The compact disc turned music into software – manipulable, executable, bootleggable files.

Music as software. Ring any bells?

The NUblog is the only leading Weblog on Internet culture to eschew discussion of online music (unless you count linking to a screed by Miss Courtney Love). The issues are self-evident, and were sewn up beautifully by Esther Dyson: “Yes, it’s wrong to steal, and yes, the music companies have legally binding copyrights. But the reality is that it’s not good business to annoy both your customers and your suppliers – especially if you’re an intermediary whose added value is questionable.”

It will inevitably become necessary to give away some music online in order to put a dent into wide-scale illegal distribution, which in any event will gradually become eradicated by MP3.com/Napster-style deals with the devil music industry. But the leading test case so far does not inspire confidence: The Offspring.

The unexpected punk heroes (see also: All, Descendents, Bad Religion) may be millionaires, but they understand the digital era. They answer their own E-mail. They fought to keep their fans’ E-mail addresses private unto the band, and won. (Talk about your opt-in marketing.) They attempted to post an entire new album, Conspiracy of One, in MP3 format before CD release. There was also a plan afoot to give away a US$1 million prize.

The resulting dialogue, as seen in Warner Brothers toons, goes like this:

It seemed to be a case of mutual assured destruction. If the Offspring goes under, Sony takes a big hit. Otherworldly ice-blond Offspring declamator Dexter Holland and the lads figured they were so valuable to the Japanese multinational that the knives wouldn’t come out. Nope: Sony threatened to sue.

Only in the cable-TV industry are relations up and down the rungs of the ladder more poisoned than in the record biz. If major labels were parents, they would sue their own children for not loving them.

Various half-arsed countersuits were envisaged, one of them based on the claim that Sony, by releasing Offspring CDs in an unencrypted format (as all consumer recording formats have been, Serial Copy Management System notwithstanding), opened the band to piracy. But MP3 is an unencrypted format, and by posting the entire album the band itself would clearly engage in piracy. (Musicians on major labels are sharecroppers. They don’t own their own work. Spike Lee had something to say about this: “The attitude was, ‘Get the publishing rights and give the nigger a Cadillac.’ In the end, it’s about ownership.”)

The band ended up giving away a single, “Original Prankster” (with even more of those trademark Hollandaise declamations), but still giving away the million-buck jackpot. Hardly the same, really, is it? The video for “Original Prankster” predated the album release by weeks. Anyone with a satellite dish or a digital cable box could have recorded the song off the TV airwaves in scrumptious digital quality and uploaded it hither and yon. By the time the official MP3 gets posted, it’s old news. What could have been a bold embrace of the principle “If we give it away, people will buy it” was reduced to a largely futile gesture.

If George Michael (like Prince) was reduced to a provider of software well before the net took off, what does that make the Offspring?

We wanted to ask Offspring manager Jim Guerinot a few questions about Web content, and no questions at all, really, about the Sony contract. Was he interested in an E-interview? “Not really.” We’re still trying.

Posted on 2000-11-16