A Nation of Thieves?
Something happened on the way 2 the 21st century. Media and entertainment companies started “converging” and “shareholder value” became far more important than customer service and respect 4 company employees ever managed 2 b. Compensation packages 4 company xecutives hit the stratosphere — while holding them accountable 4 their company’s results became nearly impossible.
These xecutives r indeed very naïve if they think that people haven’t noticed.
People r noticing that something isn’t quite right — that something is indeed very wrong. After a decade during which the stock market gained apparent respectability as a legitimate, sensible 4m of investing, the recent slew of huge corporate scandals reveals that it is still what it has always been: a sick place where neurotic, puerile gamblers get their kicks off the backs of millions of “anonymous” workers and individuals, who have no control over what happens 2 their hard-earned retirement savings.
Yet this is the place that most company xecutives feel is much more important 2 watch than the actual people 4 whom they produce their goods and services. This is the place where the fate of thousands of employees is decided every day by people staring at computer monitors showing ever-changing, meaningless lists of numbers and charts. And if u happen 2 personally hold shares in a company that has just announced that it is “restructuring” in order 2 improve its bottom-line and thus increase its “shareholder value”, don’t kid urself: When the company is talking about “shareholders”, it’s not talking about u and ur measly couple of thousands of shares. It’s only talking about big shareholders — i.e. other companies that own a more significant share of its market value.
This is a world where “hostile takeovers” and government-approved “mergers” r feeding a never-ending cycle of fewer and fewer xecutives wielding more and more power on a multinational scale. Soon enough, the “World Company” and George Orwell’s 1984 will no longer b the stuff of satire or fiction — but prophetic descriptions of a very real “New World Order” gradually unfolding b4 r eyes.
A Little History
Let’s start with a simple list: America Online, Time, Life, Warner Bros., Fortune, Elektra, Sports Illustrated, HBO, Turner Broadcasting, CNN, Cinemax, Entertainment Weekly, New Line Cinema, In Style, Warner/Chappell Music, Time Warner Cable, WBN, ICQ, Warner Music Group, Netscape, People, Reprise, Rhino, Atlantic, WEA, TNT, MapQuest, WinAmp, In Demand, Erato, Moviefone, Road Runner, etc. All owned by the same corporate giant (AOL Time Warner).
And another one: Universal Music Group, Verve, Nathan, Canal+, Impulse!, Cegetel, USA Networks, Decca, Interscope, Geffen, A&M, Barclay, Armand Colin, L’Express, Universal Studios, Larousse, Sierra, MP3.com, MCA Records, Deutsche Grammophon, Cineplex, etc. All owned by the same corporate giant (Vivendi Universal).
And yet another one: Disney, ABC, ESPN, Hyperion, Miramax, Touchstone, Hollywood Pictures, A&E, The History Channel, E! Entertainment, RTL-2, Buena Vista, Mr. Showbiz, Wall of Sound, Mammoth Records, etc. All owned by the same corporate giant (Walt Disney).
Need we say more? See 4 urself… There’s already only 7 of these corporate giants in total — and how long will it b b4 there r even fewer?
It all began innocently enough. Young entrepreneurs in the early 20th century started up new companies with a mix of creative ambition and business acumen. Then these companies grew bigger and bigger, and whatever entrepreneurial vision was present at their birth became more and more diluted and less and less relevant. Then corporate accountants suggested merging with or taking over other companies — and it all became an all-2-real game of Monopoly.
Then the Internet and “new technologies” came about, and the accountants’ next big idea was convergence — i.e. the merging of “content” providers and “access” providers in order 2 control everything from the inception of a “cultural product” 2 its ultimate consumption by the unsuspecting masses.
The Art of Manipulation
It is easy 2 guess what got lost along the way… Creativity. Artistry. Independence. Critical objectivity. Uncontrolled access. The ability 2 “break thru” cultural barriers. Cultural diversity. Innovation. Freedom. Real music. Real art.
Juggling between art and commerce is a delicate balance at the best of times… and these r definitely NOT the best of times.
So now we have a so-called magazine “reporting” on the latest new blockbuster movie with a 10-page, full-color spread — as if the reporters weren’t aware that the same company that produced the movie also owns their magazine… Yes, this is still called a “magazine”. These r still called “reporters”. And this is still called “journalism”… And yet millions of people r gleefully letting themselves b had.
Maybe we should stop calling this “art”, or even “entertainment” 4 that matter — 4 what is so entertaining about being involved in a collective hallucination? Maybe we should start calling it what it really is, i.e. unfettered MANIPULATION.
In 1995, Clear Channel Communications owned 43 radio stations. Now it owns more than 1,200 — and its army of so-called “independent promoters” r letting legalized payola dictate what u get (or rather don’t get) 2 hear on the radio.
Everywhere u look, the story is the same: more and more money, less and less choice, less and less freedom of access, fewer and fewer companies. How far will this have 2 go b4 a big shift in people’s attitude causes this commercial hubris 2 collapse on2 itself and implode?
The first major cracks in this highly concentrated corporate world have, of course, already begun 2 appear, in what has been making the headlines in the past few months, i.e. shady accounting practices involving enormous amounts of money — enough 2 shake the economy of the most powerful nation of the world. And the hysterical stock markets have of course been swayed by this news, at the xpense of tens of thousands of workers worldwide and millions of small investors who thought that their holdings had nowhere 2 go but up.
The value of AOL Time Warner’s stock is now a quarter of what it was at the time of the merger between AOL and Time Warner, and this decline 4ced the company 2 take a $54 billion writedown earlier this year. And now it 2 is being investigated about its accounting practices. The story at Vivendi Universal is similar. Disney shares r near an 8-year low. And there is little doubt in people’s mind that the problems r similar everywhere, in every big conglomerate that has become utterly out of touch with the reality of everyday work and the essence of human creativity.
In addition, people also realize all 2 well that governments have little — if any — power left when it comes 2 regulating these multinational monsters. Governments have much more power when it comes 2 regulating the lives of ordinary, law-abiding citizens — and they use and abuse this power as a way 2 distract people’s attention from how much control the conglomerates have over what we get 2 hear, watch, read, eat, drink, buy, and generally xperience as “free” citizens of the world.
One of the areas where this struggle is most acutely felt is, of course, the online world — a sprawling, anarchic community that is still in its infancy and whose xponential development in the last decade took everyone by surprise. And nothing xemplifies the struggle between government, big business, and individual rights better than the highly controversial issue of “peer-2-peer” file sharing and its many digital variations.
A Nation of Thieves?
Will the media/technology giants recover from the latest stock market slump? They probably will — but at what cost? In all likelihood, the cost will b more “restructuring”, more layoffs, more xecutive shuffles and golden parachutes, causing even further alienation from their own employees and customers. And this, in turn, will further encourage the very behaviors that they claim r illegal and want punished by criminal law — all the while preserving their own impunity as they continue 2 carelessly flounder a capital that they do not own.
Napster may have gone bankrupt and become a closed chapter in the Internet’s short history, but its death is by no means a reflection of a decline in peer-2-peer (P2P) file sharing, quite the contrary. If anything, P2P has grown even further — but since it’s becoming totally decentralized, there is no easy way 2 measure its significance.
What is 4 sure, however, is that, in spite of its many claims 2 the contrary, the recording industry has yet 2 provide evidence that P2P is actually detrimental 2 music making as an artistic endeavor, and even as a commercial venture. It is worth remembering, 4 xample, that sales of music CDs actually increased when Napster was at its peak, and declined after Napster was abruptly shut down. Even economists who thought that file sharing “should b” hurting the recording industry r now xpressing their doubts, based on what they say is simply not happening.
More importantly, many well-respected artists have sided with Internet users against corporate greed and actually use the Internet 2 promote alternative ways 2 distribute their music and reach out 2 a non-captive, legitimate audience of authentic music lovers.
This does not mean, of course, that all 4ms of file sharing r equally innocuous. There is little doubt that, when people use the Internet as a substitute 4 radio, i.e. as a way 2 discover new music, it can help promote the work of artists. But when a young junior high school student downloads tracks off the Internet and makes CD-R copies of them that he then sells 4 $5 in the schoolyard, it hurts sales of the original CD and it’s disrespectful of the artist — regardless of how small a cut of the actual CD price the artist actually gets after all the xecutives and the middlemen in the recording industry have taken their piece of the pie.
Still, can we really go as far as 2 say that digital technology is creating a “nation of thieves” who no longer recognize the just value of art?
Protecting the Product
It is worth noting, 2 begin with, that the recording industry itself is far from having distinguished itself by recognizing the true value of art. Instead, it has consistently fought 2 b allowed 2 deprive many artists of their most fundamental rights. It has allowed popular artists 2 go bankrupt even though their albums were selling by the millions. It has reduced the artists’ cut of the album sales pie 2 a ridiculously small portion of the actual income generated by these sales. It has consistently pushed commercial musical products at the xpense of real musical artistry.
This hardly entitles the recording industry 2 lecture anyone about recognizing the just value of art.
It is also interesting 2 note that the cultural products that seem 2 b the primary concern of the industry giants r those that r already the most popular ones, and that things such as CD copy protection r being xperimentally used mostly with items that will sell millions regardless of whether they r copy-protected or not.
So r most citizens really being completely disrespectful of the value of art and the need 2 provide appropriate compensation 2 the artists 4 their works? We’ve said it b4 and we’ll say it again: the rise of digital technology and peer-2-peer file sharing has little 2 do with people’s intrinsic respect 4 art and artists, and everything 2 do with the cynical attitude of big industry conglomerates, which have consistently pushed 4 more and more commercial, highly profitable products at the xpense of authentic art and respect 4 artists.
If people do not feel enough guilt 2 prevent them from making digital copies of the latest episode of a popular TV show or hit pop song, it is precisely because the industry giants have succeeded in making these works purely commercial products, with little or no consideration 4 their actual artistic value. It is precisely because these companies have been consistently promoting commercial products at the xpense of artistic works.
The fact that actual works of art still manage 2 seep thru the cracks of this huge profit-driven industry does not change anything about the fundamental equations that have been driving and still drive the industry, 2day more than ever — i.e. that art = money, artists = money-makers, and art lovers = consumers.
As a simple xample of how little music is valued as an art 4m by the industry, it is estimated that only about 20 percent of music ever recorded is currently available — and, of this 20 percent, what proportion is actually readily available 2 music lovers? What proportion is not the current 100 top albums on the SoundScan charts?
It simply appears that the instinctive reaction of the lover of art (b it music, TV shows, movies, or other 4ms of art) is such that, if the industry has no respect 4 his or her identity as an appreciator of art, then he or she has no reason 2 have any respect 4 the industry as a purveyor of art. By making digital copies of so-called cultural products, many people r not demonstrating their lack of respect 4 art and 4 artists, but r xpressing — consciously or not — their frustration with the way the entertainment industry profits from art at the xpense of both art makers and art lovers.
The consumers of the commercial products of the entertainment industry r only as cynical as the industry has deliberately made them, by dumbing down their products, by xploiting artists, by making profit-driven choices and decisions, and by providing their own kind with obscene compensations and legal impunity that r completely out of touch with the real world of ordinary people.
Don’t Get It Twisted
That being said, the whole debate about file sharing and digital piracy is, most of all, a convenient way 4 industry conglomerates 2 deflect attention from their own shady business practices and dubious alliances.
4 xample, it is worth noting that the Warner Music Group is heavily involved in the recording industry’s fight against piracy, but that its own parent company, AOL Time Warner, is directly benefiting from file sharing, as a provider of Internet access 2 millions of Internet users worldwide. When AOL Time Warner repeatedly flaunts its ever-increasing number of members (34 million and counting) and the billions of hours that they spend online, is there any doubt that a good part of this growth involves the “unlawful” xchange of computer files at the detriment of recording artists?
In other words, the real “thieves” r not necessarily those that r currently getting the blame… Rather than a “nation of thieves”, the current situation looks, 2 us, much more like an “elite of thieves”.
And the real victims of this thievery r very much, as usual, the recording artists themselves, who will never get their share of AOL’s profits as an Internet access provider, even though these profits r partly based on the content that they originally provided. And the real victims also include authentic music lovers, who already suffer from restricted access 2 the full range of music that they would like 2 xplore, and who r also likely 2 suffer from technological restrictions that will soon prevent them from making legitimate copies of the works that they have lawfully purchased 4 their own enjoyment.
Make no mistake: the entertainment industry (including TV, movies and music) might b big, but the technology industry is even bigger. Remember that it is AOL that bought Time Warner, and not the other way around. Remember that Sony makes much more money in electronics and computer equipment than it does in record sales…
If the technology industry ends up implementing technological limitations that prevent users from lawfully enjoying their purchases — as it is threatening 2 do — the beneficiaries will not b the artists whose works r thus being allegedly “protected”. And it will certainly not b the art lovers whose enjoyment of art will thus b restricted. No, it will simply b, once again… the industry conglomerates, who will have yet another generation of incompatible media and devices 2 sell 2 us under the guise of “technological improvement”.
The technology and entertainment industries r simply 2 big 4 us 2 xpect any overnight changes. The industry giants will continue 2 do their best 2 deflect people’s attention away from their own wrongdoings and 2 blame falling profits and commercial failures on piracy at the same time that they r encouraging their customers 2 adopt the very technologies that make piracy possible. Artists will continue 2 b lured by unrealistic promises and contracts with big numbers and lots of small print.
How long, however, b4 a critical mass of established artists realize that it is in their best interests, both artistically and commercially, 2 leave the system 4 good? How long b4 a critical mass of young aspiring artists become aware of the enslaving aspects of the system and r careful not 2 get involved in it without a maximum of precautions? And how long b4 a critical mass of art lovers get 2gether 2 provide these artists with a real, valuable, legitimate, truthfully enthusiastic alternative audience that completes the process of rendering the xisting system artistically irrelevant?
It all depends on us — and it all depends on u.
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