Tuesday, August 19, 2008
righteous babe in a pickle
(righteous babe logo courtesy righteous babe records)
I took last week off from blogging and other things. Instead, I went to Grimsby, Ontario and Buffalo, New York, and dedicated myself to approaching the finish line on my next novel (thank you Canada Council for the grant). It was a week spent blissfully not thinking about the copyfight apparently gripping this country.
And now I'm back to the end times -- after reading Michael Geist's column in yesterday's Star, one could be forgiven for assuming the apocalypse of consumer freedom is nigh. Funny, I note the car I own can technically get me up past 200 kilometers an hour; yet if I choose to drive that quickly just about anywhere I'll probably be spending some time in jail. I can't believe this government restricts my freedom so unfairly. What is this, Russia? I mean, I bought the car, didn't I?
Anyhoo, while approaching Buffalo (at a reasonable speed), I tuned into one of their two local NPR stations, WNED, and listened to an excellent interview with local indie rocker ani difranco, founder of one of the USA's oldest and most successful record labels -- righteous babe records. Not only does difranco eschew the corporate music industry (in fact, she sort of started that trend) but she, for the most part, encouraged the bootlegging of her early concerts. difranco recognized that the hard core fans in her relatively small audiences holding up crappy tape recorders were not actually competing for her recorded music earnings. Instead they were acting as free advertising for her, spreading the goodness of difranco around vibrant bohemian communities all over North America, building her audience and in essence selling tickets to her future shows. Righteous Babe is so fond of this bootlegging history, they have recently released a series of live albums called the "official bootleg series." Read the description and see how brilliantly they market the value add of professional recordings. Smart righteous babes.
Listening to the interview, which was recorded before a live audience at San Francisco's City Arts & Lectures series, I had one of those "gawd, I'm old" moments when it was mentioned that difranco's first album was released over twenty years ago. This is an artist who sold her music on cassette tapes, and then CDs. When the interviewer, Rolling Stone magazine's Michael Azerrad, somewhat tentatively asked her what she thought of, as he put it, illegal music downloading I was just crossing the Peace Bridge. Suspended over the Niagara River, I found myself gazing hopefully out across the beautiful blue of Lake Erie and repeating to myself -- "Don't say you don't want to sue your fans. Don't say you don't want to sue your fans."
Sometimes, directed meditation works. The righteous Ms. difranco paused long, sighed hard, and really struggled for an answer. In the end, she managed to point out that however freeing to the average music consumer, illegal downloading had "put Righteous Babe in a bit of a pickle." After all, in their established anti-corporate indie business model difranco's CD sales were used to help subsidize the creation of the less well-known, newer, struggling artists in the RB stable. And with what sounds like the utter collapse of Righteous Babe CD sales, they have not quite figured out how to recover the lost revenue. It should be noted that difranco is a new mother, who wants to spend as much of her time now looking after her child, and not filling concert halls. Where's the RB revenue going to come from?
I don't know the answer, but I thank whatever deity resides in Lake Erie that not every established hipster superstar stops thinking about the real issues behind copyright as soon as she makes it big.