DEMOCRITIC: …'BOUT YOUR G-G-GENERATION

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To the graduating class of 2003 (or so): The future is you. You emerge into the great marketplace of the world empowered by technology you know by rote, as no other generation has before you. Where your parents sat back and accepted the programming of mass media and allowed mass marketers to patronize them, you have utilized the tools of your time to reshape the culture. You are the first 20-year cohort to realize the democratic potential of our burgeoning common treasury of digital information.

And for this you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

We of generations past went into the cultural churn of our college years with much the same hunger for the new, the different, the raw passion that is the fervent engine of the music of the American streets. We did it in times when “new� could be accessed, tasted, heard. Today's 21-year-old has been disadvantaged in that respect, growing up in a marketplace from which “raw� has been eugenically excised, a marketplace nearly paved flat by gross consolidation and an insidious thing called the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Facing down a cabal of companies that dictate the “hip� and the “hot� of the music business, droves of young people, who would otherwise be the industry's “core market,� have resorted to creating their own advantages. How? They weaned themselves of the passive role of receiver of radio and MTV transmissions, and of an ancien régime music industry that remained inert, unresponsive and corrupt. So, as digital music formatting merged with personal technology, our intrepid young consumers relished developing a new system that actively, and deftly, preyed upon the shortcomings of the old.

Little wonder that the Recording Industry Association of America has embarked on a blustery legal crusade against freebooting slackers and their practice of “file sharing.� Little irony that the RIAA and its media partner industries — radio and, well, Viacom — find themselves fighting a sweep of history largely of their own making.

More ironic, perhaps, Gen Y finds itself inadvertently dismantling music business empires Baby Boomer parents helped to build. What one generational cohort giveth, another can taketh away. Strategy executives in other industry sectors would do well to note: The music business may serve as a bellwether of Gen Y activism. This cohort has shown that it will be merciless in its response to reactionary business behavior, and that it has some remarkably well-developed weaponry to carry out its campaigns to get what it wants in the marketplace.

Let's look a little closer at the case in point. The RIAA blames file sharing — the online swapping of electronic song files — for the free fall of record sales in recent years. CD sales have plummeted by 20 percent since 1999, including an 11 percent drop last year alone. To be sure, this has happened as the technology revolution enabled such online file-swapping services as the now-defunct Napster and the newer Grokster and Kazaa. Kazaa's peer-to-peer (“P2P�) song-swapping software has been downloaded 200 million times, and Grokster estimates that 4.5 million consumers are using its services at any given moment. After a court ruling required Verizon's ISP unit to reveal the names of suspected music pirates, the RIAA announced in June that it would start suing file sharers. In July, it issued upwards of 900 subpoenas, forcing more ISPs to turn over customers' account information.

Record companies, however, are woefully mistaken. Lacking vision beyond their own profit lines, they fail to see that the revolution in music delivery occurred in reaction to the industry's mismanagement, not to mention its complicity in force-feeding the public a flavorless diet of sonic pabulum. Since the Telecom Act deregulating radio ownership was passed in '96, Clear Channel Entertainment and Viacom are now drawing 42 percent of listeners and control 45 percent of industry revenues, according to an exhaustive 2002 study by the Washington, D.C.-based Future of Music Coalition (FMC). As their empires have billowed, the two corporations have slashed staffs, eliminated stations' repertoire initiative (once the local arbiter of what new music got heard) and homogenized programming. The FMC report points out, for example, that four executives control the programming of Clear Channel's eight Washington, D.C., radio stations. “Format oligopolies and format homogeneity are part of the very same phenomenon,� the report states. “Bottom-line pressures push radio parent companies to employ fewer and fewer people to do the same job, resulting in fewer gatekeepers and different playlist formats featuring many of the same songs.�

What's more, the five major record labels have proven willing bedmates. They dole out $100 million a year to corporate radio through third-party record promoters — “pay-for-play� — their expenditures basically dictating what records make the playlists. Further, corporate radio's rigid formatting system now becomes a sterilizing A&R guidepost for the labels — e.g., if they're going to dump millions into a major release, they're going to do it with relative sound-alike acts, the Backsync Kids and Celine Aguileras of the world, to hedge their bets on airplay. Song overlap from format to format has also become prevalent. In its audit of Billboard's charts, the FMC found that, of 430 total slots in the “Top� charts that determine playlists across 11 radio formats, only 253 songs filled them.

The resulting pall of sameness and oppressive control would leave a newly awakened music aficionado little choice: Look elsewhere for new music — and not just to online swappers. Online outlets have enabled listeners to sample records, wholly legally, before dropping $15 on one of them. Further, the time Americans spent listening to streaming online radio Webcasts increased 82 percent in 2002, according to Arbitron's MeasureCast Ratings service, and will accelerate as broadband hookups enhance the sonic capabilities of their computers. As of May, broadband had grown 49.2 percent, to 39 million users in the United States, over the year previous. Students outpaced that growth to make up the largest segment, at 7.8 million users. Even as wired households are now upwards of two-thirds of the country — and 1 in 2 of us visit music-related sites, according to Jupitermedia, in Darien, Conn. — college students eclipse that ratio: A whopping 88 percent of them own their own computer, 93 percent of them go online regularly and even 36 percent own mobile Web-access devices, per a fall '02 Harris study.

And while the top streaming radio service drew only around 368,000 unique listeners, that growth rate comes as radio listenership continues to erode, especially among core teen and young adult markets. Though general radio listening had declined prior to 1996, we can see, to look at Arbitron's ratings tracking, some marked drop-offs in recent years among young adult listeners. Among 25- to 34-year-olds, rock radio ratings have fallen from 15.5 (audience per quarter-hour) in winter 1999 to 11.3 this past winter, “alternative� stations declined from 8.7 to 8.2, adult contemporary stations plummeted from 18.9 to 15.2, and country stations fell from 8.9 to 6.9. Among 18- to 24-year olds, alternative's ratings dropped from 10.5 to 9.5, adult contemporary's from 14.9 to 10.9, and rock's from 12.9 to 9.9. At the same time, the most homogenized of all formats, “contemporary hit radio,� grew from 12.7 to 14.8 in the 25-to-34 group and from 24.0 to 27.0 among those 18 to 24. Credit those shifts to the industry's corporate streamlining.

Also primed for growth, satellite radio services XM and Sirius are offering vast new spectrums of entertainment. As they attempt to get their hardware into American households and cars, their pitch is largely based on DJ-centric shows that promise more eclectic mixes of artists than traditional broadcasts offer, many from promotionally challenged indie labels, across a broader array of music styles — all that commercial radio isn't. XM now claims upwards of 700,000 subscribers (expected to top a million by year's end), Sirius claims another 100,000, and the Boston-based research firm The Yankee Group has forecast some 15 million total subscribers for the industry by 2006.

“People are looking for an alternative to commercial radio, and it's due to the fact that a large part of the country is audio-starved,� says Jim Collins, vice president of corporate communications at Sirius. “There are so many limitations in regular commercial radio's programming. So much of regular commercial radio is repetitious — a lot of of commercials, DJ chatter, just a lot of clutter.�

Initially a service priced and positioned for a wealthy audience, satellite radio has tapped into a broad swath of discontent. According to the FMC's survey of 500 people conducted last year, while 49 percent of radio listeners said they frequently heard music they liked, that figure dropped to a low of 39 percent among people under 30, and 21 percent of that group said they rarely heard music they liked. Almost 4 out of 5 listeners said they want stations to expand their playlists from the standard 40 “hits�; among those under 30, 84 percent want station playlists expanded. Only 40 percent of respondents knew about the current pay-for-play system, and 68 percent favored Congressional intervention to stop the practice and “assure that all artists have a reasonable chance of having their songs heard.�

In the meantime, Napster has reemerged as a pay-per-download, BuyMusic.com has made a media splash with its own service, and the major online portals have all jumped on the bandwagon. These “legit� file-sharing services are hatched in partnership with the labels, still providing content from their stagnant pool.

Whether the RIAA succeeds in locking up a bunch of college kids — one well-lobbied Republican congressman has recommended as much — it must at some point face the reality that its system doesn't work. For the elite five labels, suing their core consumers and expecting Clear Channel and Viacom to brainwash them, as they have done for so long, is not going to reinvigorate an art form they have done so much to ruin. Pandora's box has been opened. Closing it, however harsh the language of the subpoena, will not force an entire generation to unlearn the technology that nurtured it where the megacorporations failed.

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