Royalty Pains and Net Prophets

As online radio faces possible financial doom, Pandora thinks outside the box

The current relationship between music and the Internet is hugely cool and encouraging; the current relationship between the music industry and the Internet is hugely fucked. The evolving impact of the World Wide Web on the regulatory side of the music biz—which is as fraught as any other global business with tremendous stakes—demonstrates what happens to self-satisfied industrial rackets that undervalue and exploit their labor corps and consumer base and has been a lesson in hubris-management for the TV and movie industries.

From the illegal-downloading issue (which has defied resolution and lingers somewhere around ridiculous) to platform-related content-ownership concerns, the subject of rights begs for re-imagining. Copyright is very real, but its meaning mutates when it applies to indie bands getting paid enough to eat and tour, or the conglomerates protecting their silos of cash. Copyright will order how the music industry ultimately transforms, though saving itself will also depend on a more productive method than the existing "alienate and self-destruct" approach.

The latest casualty of Big Music's rights-related wrath is the cuddly world of Internet radio. Like terrestrial and satellite radio, plenty of Internet radio exists for profit (Last.fm, a combo radio/social-networking site, was just sold to CBS for $280 million), in-it-for-fun webcasters (including podcasters, suddenly a more ubiquitous group than amateur DJs) and midsized commercial outfits. Oakland-based Internet radio/recommendation service Pandora.com is already a much-discussed web property, mostly because of its next-level recommendation tool.

Pandora's fun preference-analysis program, called the Music Genome Project, allows users to create their own stations, instead of hearing a curated radio program. Starting with a song or artist chosen by the user, the program will then play similar songs that share "genes," such as "bowed bass playing," "subtle use of noise effects," "trippy soundscapes" and whatever grand themes your preferences eventually carve out. The user can opt to approve the tracks, or give them a "never again" thumbs-down, and create any number of new stations. Pandora also happens to be an elegant application, with an intuitive navigational quality and a clean design. Its library boasts a genuine breadth of material, featuring about half a million songs—all of which have been systematically chosen and analyzed by a team of musicians, who are also increasing their focus on local content—and the company is actively developing new platforms for its product. The whole thing seems very Douglas-Coupland-novel tech utopia.

While Pandora has garnered much (mostly positive) press coverage and user feedback for the Music Genome Project's novelty factor, and it has partnered with coveted big-papa web entities such as Microsoft, Pandora has also taken up an overtly activist position on the issue of copyright and Internet radio. In March, the Copyright Royalty Board responded to directives by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to increase royalty rates significantly and make licensing stricter for music played on Internet radio. These new rules have required Pandora and other Internet radio sites to cut off most of their international users. Like many "U.S. only" web applications, Pandora had previously been using a ZIP code honor system that foils no one but morally rigid grandmothers.

While proxy servers circumvent the problem for international users (bush-league hackers will always get what they want) and pirate (Internet) radio will still exist, the implications of the swell of new fees and regulations are discouraging and can be disabling for online art-dissemination systems that struggle with issues of copyright and property law. While Pandora has a distinct business interest in more-forgiving royalty-payment rates, its oft-blogged-about position (and company head Tim Westergren's work with the Save Net Radio Coalition, a group that monitors the RIAA) is in service of the Internet-radio concept. Inflated royalty payments will effectively disable most webcasters' ability to participate at all, and those who might survive them will be compelled to bloat their programs with major-label filler, as smaller and independent acts can't offer the bulk deals of music rights.

If Pandora does anything perfectly, it is firing the sounds of by-definition indie rock and other fresh music into the ears of anyone who's interested. You like U2 and the Arcade Fire? Here's Besnard Lakes and Ghost Is Dancing. The Copyright Royalty Board will see to it that an accountant in Des Moines never finds out about the Yah Mos Def. The poor sucker.

Pandora does have one major flaw: While the project and its capacity to dissect your favorite songs and systematically recommend sound-alike tracks is cool, musical preference is much more than the sum of a song's parts. So, Pandora can't deliver on its "single mission": "To play music you'll love—and nothing else." But it does fight for the opportunity to try.

 
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