With a deal announced Monday between three of the music business's Big Five (Bertelsmann AG, EMI Group and AOL Time Warner, parent company of this writer) and tech outfit RealNetworks to create a pay-for-play service called MusicNet, the industry headed into a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on online entertainment Tuesday feeling ready to face the future.
"Giving away someone else's music without their permission is yesterday's news," RIAA spokesman Hillary Rosen told the committee.
Over the course of its yearlong court battle to squash music-swapper Napster, the RIAA was not known for its futurism. And with a host of other free-music sites out there BearShare, Gnutella, Aimster, yada, yada, yada, snapping up downloaders as we speak, Rosen's optimism for a more moral world of online music (or merely a more lucrative one for the record companies, whichever you prefer) may be a bit premature. But she's right about one thing the Senate wasn't doing much more than holding a star-studded wake.
Parading before the committee to take the side of Napster and its ilk were former Eagle Don Henley and former Public Enemy Chuck D, who spoke to Napster fans before the hearing at a rally Monday evening. And in Washington to kowtow to the music establishment was Ted Nugent, a congressional-hearings favorite (though more for his bow-hunting prowess than "Cat Scratch Fever") and EMI executive Ken Berry.
OK, so it's not exactly an A-list crowd. Courtney Love, who's suing her label, Vivendi Universal, for unfairly locking her into a long-term deal, won't be there. Olivia DeHavilland, the mid-century movie goddess who cracked the studio system with a similar suit in 1945, has since passed on. But Henley, in particular, wants to use the rise and fall of Napster as a jumping-off point for a larger debate about artists' rights and the traditional label system.
Napster, meanwhile, is looking about as dated as Henley. The site that with Mp3.com is likely to have changed the music business forever is now struggling to make it through the spring, engaged in a tit-for-tat legal battle with the RIAA as it gets around to complying with a technologically tricky (and market-share-killing) court order requiring it to remove all copyrighted material from its service.
Napster has been trying to keep its users around long enough to kick off its own pay-for-play system in June with an investment by Bertelsmann. Now, with an evidently impatient Bertelsmann getting in on the MusicNet deal, Napster will be a beggar at that banquet executives at the new service are already imposing stringent conditions about security and legality on Napster's eventual inclusion.
Online music seems inarguably destined to live on, and as music labels take advantage of the medium's low-overhead distribution model, the artist-label debate will no doubt pick up additional steam. In the meantime, the RIAA is just in time to tell the assembled senators that everything's fine, thank you very much, we've got it under control.
And maybe sign Judiciary Committee chairman Orrin Hatch, who's a mean faith-based songwriter himself, to a really long-term deal.