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Folk Alliance Newsletter

Performers Column

by Joel Mabus

written April 2001



Napster v. Folkster
Joel Mabus

With some amusement I've been watching the Napster saga play out in the courts. As I write, things are still murky and unsettled. I'm betting by the time you read this, it will be the other way around: unsettled and murky.

As a folksinger, self-published songwriter, and maker of CDs that sell to an "alternative" audience, Napster has been no big threat to my livelihood as far as I can tell. It seems the biggest users of Napster are people with A) lots of free time and B) unlimited broadband access to the internet. In other words: college students. And unfortunately for many of my fellow folksingers and myself, our music is much more likely to appeal to the parents of these Napster-heads than to their pierced offspring off at school. I know -- I'm painting with a broad brush here. Music GRAF (Generally Recognized As Folk) has wide appeal to many segments of society. But if you are a performer on the so-called "folk circuit" you know the reality of the graying audience. 

Thus it would seem I, and performers like me, have little stake in the outcome of this trial. In the short run perhaps this is so. But under the doctrine of "pay the piper," I would like to see the users of music pay something to the makers of music, just as a general principle. I wince at the statements of some who say, "Hey music is free, why should we pay for just grabbing tunes off the internet?" Well, hey, I'm a child of the 60's, man. I'm all for freedom too. Grab a guitar, and sing whatever you want. Write a song that says what ever you want to say. You are free to give it away - or sell it. But I don't have the freedom to sell your song behind your back. Or - more to the point - I shouldn't have the freedom to give away your song to the people you would like to sell it to.

And while I have lost but little out of my pocket at this point (I assume), I am not feeling terribly sorry for the "Big Five" major labels who are backing the litigation against Napster. They certainly are no saints when it comes to protecting the rights of and paying monies to performing artists. It's no secret how the record companies (and not just the big ones) in America have gouged the singers and writers over and over. So when Napster claimed they weren't making money off their enterprise - they were just "sharing files" it was tempting to see them as a cyber Robin Hood, going up against "the Man."

But then I see the counter offer of Five Billion (with a "B" !) dollars that this "free" service offers the major labels to drop their case. Now we're talking real money, folks. But it's not the big money - it's the precedent that makes me nervous. They are proposing to charge a fee, monthly perhaps, to Napster users - make that "subscribers" - and then distribute that money among the record labels on behalf of the artists. On the face of it that sounds fair. But if this scheme reminds you of the way ASCAP or BMI collects money from folk clubs, coffee shops, churches, girl scouts, etc, and then divvies up the dough according to top-forty airplay, perhaps you'll be nervous too.

Sure, MP3's are new and all-the-rage, but actually rather cranky to deal with, cumbersome to download, and don't sound so great next to a real CD. Currently - this year or next - we of the "old school" have nothing to sweat. Old-fashioned compact discs are still the king of the hill. But rest assured there will soon be a new digital technology coming down the pike that will replace the CD. I don't know what it is yet, but it's just around the corner, and Napster may be that corner. 

When a recording becomes as easy to copy and send as an email, and sounds as good or better than a CD, you can be certain there will be a method devised to collect money on it. What will soon be forged is the model for collecting and distributing that money. But if that model of collection and payment is anything like the current ASCAP/BMI method, watch out! If it comes to collecting a fee from absolutely everybody who listens to any kind of music, but paying the artists, writers, and producers based on a less-than-accurate sampling method (such as the charts on commercial radio, which in turn are in the clutches of the major labels) it may mean the downfall of the minor and micro labels that support folk music as we know it today.

It doesn't have to be that way. New technology to distribute music electronically could be truly democratic, so that each "piper" is paid his or her due. It would mean tracking each use, perhaps, rather than relying on sampling the way airplay percentages are determined today. Given computers, it could be so. But just as the major labels today largely ignore anything but the mainstream music in what they offer for sale, so easy it would be for them to exclude "marginal" art for the ease of collection and disbursal of royalties, licenses and dues.

There will be forged sometime in the next few years a method of collecting and paying money for music that will be a far cry from plunking down 15 bucks and taking home a CD. Those of us in the folk music community need to band together with other less-than-mainstream music makers to assure that the new rules of order don't count us out. We certainly can't afford to sit back and leave it to the "Big Five" to decide on how to cut the pie five ways!

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