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By Glenn Harlan Reynolds : BIO| 06 Sep 2020
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Independent music is making a comeback. Or, perhaps more accurately, it's taking the next step along a path that looks like bad news for traditional record labels.

Some time ago, I mourned the demise of MP3.com, the original independent-music portal site:

"Easy to use, easy to upload music and art, lots of networking and music-finding capabilities, and a real sense of community. That lived on, to a degree, even after the takeover. Now it's soon to be gone, and it's not at all clear that the replacement will be similar."

I can't help but notice that this change seems to be working to the advantage of big record companies. It's not just that they're cracking down, with mixed success, on file-sharers. It's that the environment for independent music on the Web seems to have grown more inhospitable, too.

And I've always had a suspicion that shutting down these independent channels for music distribution, more than cracking down on piracy, has been the real goal of big record labels. The technology for making music, after all, has gotten steadily cheaper. Where once control of big studios gave them an economic advantage. now record companies' chief asset is their control of distribution and marketing channels. The Internet threatened an end-run around that process. It still does, but the end of MP3.com bodes poorly for the future. Its replacement is likely to be something that ought to be named DRM.com, based on Digital Rights Management, and aimed not at facilitating the spread of music, but at limiting it.

That did seem to be the story, leavened somewhat by the distribution of independent music via retail sites like iTunes. But those sites haven't been as good for users who want to discover new bands as MP3.com was.

MySpace, however, has taken up the role formerly championed by MP3.com, and according to Reuters now it looks as if -- as MP3.com did -- it may even offer a way for independent musicians to make money:

"MySpace, the wildly popular online teen hangout, said on Friday it will make its first move into the digital music business by selling songs from nearly 3 million unsigned bands. . . .

"'The goal is to be one of the biggest digital music stores out there,' MySpace co-founder Chris DeWolfe told Reuters. 'Everyone we've spoken to definitely wants an alternative to iTunes and the iPod. MySpace could be that alternative.'

It's a 'long tail' approach based on selling less of more, with MySpace taking a small cut from millions of bands. And I think it spells bad news for big record companies.

In recent years, I've found myself listening to more and more independent music, and less and less music from big record companies. Why? Because the independent music is better and more interesting. It is bands recording and playing their own music the way they like it, rather than the music-by-committee that you often get when you filter a band's music through a chain of A&R folks, marketing people, and the like.

The bands I listen to don't get rich off of my patronage, but they make something. And if it were easier for people to find their music, they'd make more -- because right now, the big record companies' chief asset is control of distribution and promotion. Traditionally, radio airplay has been the main way that people find their songs, which is why payola has been such an evergreen issue. But as people spend more time online, and grow more accustomed to taking recommendations from friends, family, and trusted Internet recommenders, the role of radio airplay is likely to shrink.

That's good news for the MySpace deal, and it's bad news for the record industry. But I think it's definitely good news for the rest of us.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a TCS Daily contributing editor.

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