Archive for July, 2007

Day of reckoning arrives for Internet Radio

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Today is the day that crippling new fees for Internet Radio broadcasters mandated by the record industry and the Copyright Royalty Board go into effect, and I have a mixed bag of news to report on this subject. On the one hand, there’s reason for webcasters and their listeners to breathe a sigh of relief; SoundExchange, the arm of the RIAA responsible for collecting the fees, has announced that at least for the time being they will not “enforce” the new rates that are retroactive to January 2006, which would have caused many stations to be silent today. These outlets can continue to stream tunes while Soundexhange and representatives of the Internet Radio industry try to hammer out a compromise rate structure under the watchful eye of Congress.

But make no mistake, it is only due to the threat of legislative action that Soundexchange is being even remotely accommodating, and if you’re one of the millions of web radio fans who have contacted their elected representatives in the last several months, you can pat yourself on the back as your efforts really have made a difference. The public outcry has been phenomenal, and so far over 125 members of the House and Senate have co-sponsored the Internet Radio Equality Act in direct response to your concerns. This bill would cap royalty fees paid by webcasters to a reasonable 7.5% of revenue, the same rate paid by satellite radio broadcasters, and would address the outrageous “per-channel” fees which would bankrupt even commercial providers. But while many legislators are on board, the bill is not yet law — so please continue to contact your local officials and ask them to support H.R.2060 and S.1353.

The bad news is that as things stand at the moment, the March decision by the CRB remains in place; even though Soundexchange has announced it will not “enforce” collection of the fees, it still expects webcasters to pay them voluntarily. In a press release last Friday, the organization claimed that the “new rates and fees are in effect, and royalties are accruing”. This follows a ruling the previous day (July 12) by a federal appeals panel who dealt webcasters a setback by refusing to grant an emergency stay of the new rate structure. Therefore, lacking any legal remedy by webcasters, Soundexchange is simply saying, “the law is on our side and you owe us the money, we’re just not going to go after you … yet.” Of course, their benevolence could expire any time they damn well feel like it.

In any case, an uneasy status quo exists today while negotiations continue to try and reach a compromise to provide artists with fair payments yet allow a still-developing medium to thrive. But what does it all mean to you?

It means that there is a Battle Royale taking place for control over what music and other entertainment you are allowed to hear and see. Right now, this power is concentrated in a handful of media corporations known as “The Big Four”: Sony BMG, EMI, Universal, and Warner. For many years, the music industry has been mass-marketing whatever lowest-common-denominator product they can sell, making tons of money for themselves and for a very select few “star” artists. Smaller and independent artists who make music in what is known as the long tail of the popularity curve are effectively shut out. But suddenly, along came mp3′s, iPods, and the Internet — and the traditional methods of music production and distribution have been forever changed. To say that the music industry has not handled this well is the understatement of the century, and they are desperately trying to return to a business model that is evaporating right before their eyes.

In the last few days, I’ve searched the web looking for reaction and commentary from “plain folks” about this issue, and the results have been eye-opening. I think it’s fair to say that the music industry in general and the RIAA in particular is one of the most reviled organizations on the planet, in no small part due to their strong-arm tactics like this move to silence web radio as well as efforts to curb downloading. Here’s a sample of comments left on various web sites like this one that I’ve visited recently:

What the record industry is trying to control here is the ability of small, independent musicians to gain any audience at all – the kind of musicians the commercial radio stations and even satellite radio will never play. They’re trying to assure that real art doesn’t distract from their marketing of sex and violence dressed up as music. Any politician concerned with the state of our mass culture should recognize that the degeneracy is largely a corporate product. So anything that decreases the power of these corporations by allowing more real art to flourish in spaces they can’t control is key to restoring health to popular (and less-popular) culture.

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The RIAA hates what it can’t control. It hates P2P (despite all the free promotion), barely tolerates iTunes (even though they’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars from ITMS sales), and has even sought to stop public libraries from lending out music (communists!) This move isn’t about revenue, it’s about killing net radio. The RIAA knows that it’s impractical (if not outright impossible) to strongarm every net radio station out there like they do with terrestrial or satellite radio, so they destroy what they can’t control.

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Look, the goose is already cooked. Let’s face it, the RIAA has all but completely destroyed the recording industry rather than give up control. Putting all the internet radio stations out of business is a scorched earth move, merely a spiteful parting gesture from a walking corpse.

Let them do it.

Let them use their sweaty, mean spirited little pencil pushing lawyers to take their ball and go home.

Nothing short of this will precipitate the revolution that is needed in the media, and it starts with the smallest independent broadcasters.

You think these businesses will roll over and disappear without a fight? No way, they will merely adapt to circumstance.

The RIAA works by creating a false scarcity of content. In reality there is a glut of high quality Free content out there, millions of musicians and podcasters who have had a decade to become highly skilled content producers are just waiting for the death of Big Media so that their work can become valuable. The myth of “artists need to be paid” has been so completely destroyed only fools cling to it. Everybody knows how crooked the game is, that artists never get paid properly anyway, and that all the ones who have any merit produce because they want to and would do so even without an audience. Once they skulk off home to mommy taking their hyped manufactured rubbish with them there’s gonna be an explosion of new talent, new voices, fresh political commentators and documentary, new celebrity…. It’s ripe to happen, simple supply and demand. There is a vast reservoir of supply, and now the demand is about to kick in. I hope to God they pass this law, because it will be the death of the bastards. Once mainstream radio and TV get a sniff of how internet stations are surviving by bypassing corporate controlled material they will want a piece too. And thus the whole filthy mess begins to unwind….

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Yeah well, every third person I meet claims that they’re a “musician.” So some slackers might have to get actual jobs and actually work for a living. I do not care. I look forward to the day Avril Lavigne takes my order for a cheeseburger. Musicians and artists tend to have an extremely high self-opinion in terms of what they think they contribute to “culture.” John Coltrane contributed to culture. The world would not be significantly different, however, if the last ten years in top 40 music had never happened.

Where’s the rock style life for the people who build bridges and clean up bathrooms? Where’s the rock star life for teachers who contribute something directly measurable to our civilization? Where’s the free booze and blowjobs for activists, community organizers, and people manning the soup kitchens tonight?

And for that matter, where’s the rock star life for the countless musicians in less lucrative genres like jazz or folk music? Some of the most mindblowing music I’ve ever heard was hardcore jazz played furiously with wild abandon on snowy nights in hole-in-the-wall bars in towns and cities you haven’t heard of by amateurs who had no chance in hell of ever making a living at it even in an ideal intellectual property/copyright environment.

What this all may portend is the end of the corporate-generated rock star and frankly, I couldn’t welcome it more.

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This new technology has been sacrificed on the alter of old-technology profit-taking. What else do you expect from the US government with the jerks we have in power?

Are you sensing a theme here?

I predict that if webcasters and the RIAA are unable to reach a compromise and these new rates stand, several things will happen: (1) The largest internet radio services like Pandora, Last.fm and Live365 will begin charging subscription fees to cover the cost of the huge payments to Soundexchange; (2) The majority of stations who wish to remain law-abiding citizens of their communities will simply shut down, taking their independent voices and music with them; (3) A certain number of smaller broadcasters will thumb their nose at the new rates and continue to stream music until they are sued off the air by the RIAA; and (4) Most remaining stations will be located offshore, out of reach of the US legal system.

There’s been a temporary lull in the action today, but this battle ain’t over yet by a long shot. Please keep up the pressure on your Senators and Congressmen until we have a permanent solution.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE!

SoundExchange is already beginning to backpedal, with director John Simson saying late today that his organization never “promised” to not enforce fee collection (whether they do or not), and that barring any intervention by Congress, webcasters will still owe payments retroactively. Not only that, but Simson is adamant that any negotiations concerning fee reductions must be contingent on Internet radio stations adopting DRM technology — a.k.a. “copy protection” — to prevent listeners from ripping and recording broadcast streams. No matter that for decades it’s been considered “fair use” for people to employ conventional taping methods to record over-the-air radio stations; no, somehow this is different.

Internet broadcaster DJ Profusion quite accurately points out in this excellent article posted on the Daily Koz that Simson is “an unethical weasel who will say anything to further his own evil plans”, and SoundExchange is a corporate cartel which “has no interest in a negotiated settlement, they want to destroy Internet radio.”

We must keep this issue in the news – you can help by contacting your local Congress person to thank them for their support (or ask them to support Internet radio if they haven’t decided whether or not to support it), or your local reporter to bring the story to your news outlets.

Keep the pressure on!

Too much information

Wednesday, July 4th, 2007

I’ve been trying to think of something clever and blogworthy to say about my bronchoscopy last week, but there’s really not much there to work with. They went in, they looked around, they took some samples, I went home. That pretty much covers it. I won’t know for sure what the results are and what they might mean for at least a few weeks yet, as my doctor left town for an extended vacation immediately after performing my procedure, no doubt thanks to the huge windfall he reaped from my insurance company. I expect to at least get a postcard.

However, before donning his Serengeti polarized Lucca sunglasses and jetting off to the French Riviera, he did share with me that my CT scan this time was virtually identical to that done in May of 2006, which indicates that my pulmonary fibrosis has not advanced further into my lungs in over a year now. The implications of this are unclear, as this leaves me in a state of medical limbo with no established course of treatment. While there’s no denying that this is fantastic news, it’s also a bit disconcerting in that it calls into question the entire diagnosis of IPF; one of the defining hallmarks of this disease is its insidious progression over time. Of course, the sixty-four dollar question here then is “if it’s not IPF then what the hell is it?” and my doctor is hoping that the lung samples he obtained will shed some light on this puzzle.

Any number of things can cause scarring of the lungs, and he did say that from all appearances, it looked to him as if I experienced some “event” which damaged my lungs and then just … went away. However, this means that at some point during the last five or six years I would had to have inhaled something vile which would have caused me considerable distress, and would surely have been something I would remember — and I can recall no such experience. Another less likely possibility is that I was exposed to something in my environment slightly less toxic but for a longer period of time (asbestos? mercury? sulphuric acid? Republicans?) to where I might not have noticed the gradual irritation. As I say, hopefully micro-examination of the samples of lung tissue removed this week will give us a clue.

The upshot of all of this is that if my condition continues to remain stable, there’s a chance that I will NOT need to have a lung transplant after all, and I have seriously mixed emotions about this. Transplantation is and always has been a treatment of last resort, when there is no other option for survival. Although there have been tremendous advances in medical science even within our own lifetimes, major organ transplantation is still fraught with imperfections and complications. Because the body will always consider the transplanted organ to be an invading foreign object (or, the way a nurse once described it to me, the internal cells say to each other, “This is not me! Attack!”), the immune system must be suppressed to the point where even the slightest little infection or virus could be life-threatening. Even under the very best of circumstances, typical survival after a lung transplant is perhaps five to seven years, although a few individuals have done much better, getting ten years or more. If the doctors think I have a good chance to live at least that long without it (at one low point in 2004 my remaining life expectancy was estimated at 18 months), then I will be more than happy not to face what has until now been the looming specter of this complicated and risky surgery.

But on the other hand, what has inspired me and kept my spirits up as I have battled IPF over the last several years is the thought that once past the recovery stage, a transplant would allow me to do the things I love that I can no longer do with ease. I’ve said this before, but what I miss most is my ability to do those simple little things I used to take for granted, like riding a bike or washing the car, not to mention the esoteric stuff like walking down a beach at sunset. The idea that I will be chained to this oxygen hose for the rest of my natural life is a bit depressing, but I am coping with it by realizing that this is buying me valuable time. Who knows what kind of breakthrough procedure or medication might emerge in the next few years? The Holy Grail would be the discovery of a way for the lungs to regenerate tissue and “heal” themselves, perhaps using stem cells which could theoretically adapt to whatever part of the body was required. However, this is not likely to happen any time soon, thanks in large measure to George Bush and his continuing veto of funding for this area of medical research. Instead, he would prefer that surplus embryonic tissue be simply dumped in the trash as it would be anyway. I can’t tell you how much it galled me a year ago when Shrubya stood at the White House on a platform surrounded by cooing babies allegedly “adopted” from frozen embryos and claimed that stem cell research “would support the taking of innocent human life in the hope of finding medical benefits for others. It crosses a moral boundary that our decent society needs to respect.”

To this I say “bullshit”, but perhaps a more civil and articulate response came from Illinois Senator Richard J. Durbin who said, “Those families who wake up every morning to face another day with a deadly disease or a disability will not forget this decision by the president to stand in the way of sound science and medical research.”

That sounds a whole lot better than “bullshit,” but it means exactly the same thing. We are one of those families.

Whoops, got off-topic there for a bit, sorry! I will say that my procedure last week was about as pleasant as it could possibly be considering the circumstances, and dare I say, almost enjoyable. It’s an unfortunate fact that over the last few years I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of hospitals, having been treated, poked, or prodded in at least six major medical establishments since 2002. Last week’s experience at St. Luke’s in Houston was one of the best. Check-in paperwork was smooth, fast, and efficient. The nurses treated me like a VIP. The mutual respect and camaraderie between my doctor and the support staff in the operating room (at least, as best as I can remember before the Versed kicked in) was obvious; everyone present was good-natured — dare I say “saucy”? — yet extremely professional. It was about as much fun as one can have under anesthesia (me, not the staff, that is). The doctor chatted with Mrs. Toast about the results for a good fifteen minutes afterwards and I was released in short order. They even gave me a lollipop. What more can one ask from a medical institution?

In fact, it was so much fun that I am going back tomorrow to be probed again, only this time from the opposite direction. I will spare you the details, my friends, except to say that this procedure has safely been performed on millions of ordinary people, and by “ordinary people” I mean “those who have reported being abducted by aliens”, only without the “prep”.

“Prep”. That’s such a friendly, innocent-sounding word isn’t it? Let’s all say it together: “prep”. Just rolls off the lips, almost like a kiss. So simple and unoffensive, like something you’d do for an exam, a business meeting, or a vacation. Just four little letters.

Which give no freaking clue as to the horror that will follow.

Indeed, there is so much vast potential for mining boffo material from this event, that surely more than one stand-up comic has based an entire 30-minute routine around it. But this ain’t the Improv here, folks.

Nevertheless, it’s been recommended that I do this asap, so I’m going to get it over with. While y’all are enjoying your traditional Fourth-of-July family backyard BBQ today, think of me and the liquid diet I will be on, and the … well, maybe it would be better if you didn’t think about it at all, actually. I will promise you this: even though I finally solved my digital camera conundrum and bought a brand-new supercool Fuji Finepix (more about that in a later post), I will not, I repeat, will NOT pull a Katie Couric on you and post full-color, er, “interior” photos of the procedure afterwards. Some parts of Mr. Toast are just too frightening to be seen in public.

Anyway,

Happy 4th of July!