Special Report: Are Music Blogs Under Fire?
Everything is free now, That’s what they say. Everything I ever done, Gotta give it away. Someone hit the big score. They figured it out, That we’re gonna do it anyway, Even if doesn’t pay.
Gillian Welch’s lyrics in “Everything Is Free” elegantly – with just enough vitriol – sums up the paradox of the music business right now. As the commercial record industry tumbles and fumbles, artists find themselves in a quandary: The Internet is currently the best way for their music to be heard (besides constant touring), but it also brings the danger of tunes being pirated and passed around without proper royalty payments.
Besides iTunes, Amazon or Rhapsody, one of the best ways to get songs heard or create a buzz online is through postings from any of the thousands of music bloggers worldwide – music fans with a passion for passing along their favorite artists through their opinions and reviews to other music fans.
Some musicians embrace bloggers as a legitimate way to increase their audience, others feel that by authorizing free postings they are giving their work away without compensation. Bloggers believe they are doing a service to musicians, as well as fans, by filling in the publicity gaps left by a struggling music industry.
“Putting music on blogs is a great thing,” says Seattle-based singer-songwriter Ali Marcus. “If folks are worried about illegal downloading, it’s possible to stream music. That seems like the best of both worlds to me. But I say if you want to listen to my songs, I’m not going to stop you.”
But all musicians do not agree, and both sides have reasonable arguments. In fact, Modern Acoustic got into some hot water earlier this year with Michelle Shocked when we posted a short video clip on YouTube of her concert that we shot. We obliged her “request” to take down the clip and it was followed by some healthy – and civil – discussion on the pros and cons of such postings.
Abiding by the wishes of the artists and their labels is tantamount to the survival of the music blog community. Many of the smaller, independent labels embrace bloggers as a legitimate way to promote their artists, while the major labels – Warner, Sony and Universal – and the Recording Industry of America (RIAA), the trade group that represents the U.S. recording industry, are not as supportive.
Smaller labels regularly send out tracks or full albums to bloggers in hopes they will post them or write about a band to create buzz. There are cyber PR firms that specifically target blogs for their clients. Modern Acoustic, in fact, is constantly receiving both CDs in the mail and downloadable tracks from band representatives hoping to get their artists heard. (Note: we currently do not post MP3s on our blog, mostly due to time constraints, but we absolutely believe it enhances the blog experience.)
“I draw the line at whole albums [for posting],” says Laura Seach, head of digital PR at Ninja Tune, an independent British record label, in an interview with The Guardian newspaper, “but if someone posts one track, that’s great. The promotional opportunity is huge. We run campaigns now trying to get bloggers posting about our artists. You can’t underestimate how important blogs are.”
Cara West of Compass Records in Nashville agrees: “It is my experience that bloggers don’t have any interest in hurting a band’s music sales. If they like them enough to write about them they are more interested in helping the band succeed, [and] most will even put a link to the band’s website, record label, MySpace page or Amazon where the full album is available for purchase.”
Some record labels are now including bloggers’ comments in their press notes. Flora Reed, head of publicity for the Western Mass., label Signature Sounds says bloggers “are becoming more important as the world of print media gets smaller. The more respected blogs are becoming a real source for press quotes for our artists’ press kits.”
John Furnari, founder of the digital marketing firm bigMETHOD, explains how crucial bloggers have become using the sudden rise of client the Vermont roots-rock band Grace Potter and the Nocturnals as an example: “For a long stretch leading up to their major label release, the marketing for the band was really concentrated on two fronts – touring and direct communication with bloggers. The blogosphere was very receptive to the music at a time when they were only really known in the Northeast. And so you’d start to see the band getting crowds in towns they’d never been before, which led to even more discussion on the blogs about how incredible these live shows really were. … There is an important synergy between consistent touring and directly connecting with influential voices in the audience.” But not everything is roses in the music blogosphere. The problem arises from the numerous bloggers who post unauthorized songs on their sites. Hype Machine is an index site set up to search nearly 2,000 music blogs for free tracks. (The site itself does not post tracks.) Type in Led Zeppelin or Jenny Lewis, for instance, and most likely you will find links to posted MP3s that are free for download. You can bet that for a good number of these tracks authorization has not been granted.
So who looks after the artists’ best interests? The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) is a U.S. law that gives copyright owners, such as artists and labels, the right to serve a “takedown” notice to web hosting companies when a copyrighted work is being distributed illegally. The law demands those companies such as Blogger or YouTube to take down content immediately in response to a notice, without checking the claim for reasonableness or accuracy, or considering the fair use rights of users. If the host doesn’t abide by the notice, it subjects itself to copyright liability lawsuits.
It appears both the major labels and the RIAA monitor the Web vigorously to try to stop bloggers from posting unauthorized tracks. Emailed inquiries to the major labels for comment went unanswered.
In recent months there have been a rash of takedowns on a number of blog postings, especially on Blogger, an arm of Google and the hosting company of choice for many music bloggers (WordPress is another).
Google spokesman Jason Freidenfelds, who was reached by email, originally wasn’t aware of the numerous takedowns, but when pointed to links of various affected sites, he did acknowledge the occurrence, responding “when we are notified of the existence of content that violates our Terms of Service, we act quickly to review it and determine whether it violates these policies. If we determine that it does, we remove it. But if a blogger would like to dispute a takedown, they can file a DMCA counter complaint (at www.google.com/blogger_dmca.html).”
While some of the takedowns are justified for the posting of unauthorized tracks, bloggers are baffled by the way it is so coldly being carried out.
First, they say, most of their sites carry a proviso saying “If you represent an artist or a label and would prefer that I remove a link to an mp3, please email me and I will take it down immediately.” Secondly, they say, it is one thing for a hosting company to take down their music link, but to obliterate whole posts, which include their personal writing is taking their personal property.
Here is what is left in the place of the taken-down posts: “Blogger has been notified, according to the terms of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, that certain content in your blog infringes upon the copyrights of others.”
Coxon, who runs the blog To Die By Your Side out of England, has had multiple postings taken down. He writes: “It appears I may be a marked man. Someone has me in their sights and they’ve fired off a couple of warning shots. Having been blogging for nearly three years without getting into trouble, I’ve now had two posts removed in two weeks. Someone took offense to the tracks I’d posted, contacted Blogger directly and had the entire posts removed and deleted. Slightly heavy handed of them I feel but it’s their prerogative. Had they contacted me directly, I would have had no problem removing the tracks while leaving my reviews and opinions intact.”
On the latter blog, Boy Howdy (as he is known) posted this after his site was taken down: “The Blogger takedown comes just hours after I received a very nice thank you from the label rep who arranged for me to have those songs available for all of you.” And Sean of Mainstream Isn’t So Bad (mainstreamisntsobad.com), who blogs from Western Mass., and has also had posts featuring authorized tracks removed says, “I post music that is sent me and always notify who sent me it that it’s up for them to check out. I don’t think [bloggers] know exactly what is happening.”
So is there a war on bloggers? “Absolutely,” says bigMETHOD’s Furnari. “However, it would be more accurate to say that the charge is led by the RIAA then to say it is led directly by the labels. … We’ve been in a position on many occasions where one of the major labels has hired us to reach out to bloggers, and simultaneously the RIAA is out delivering cease and desist letters to anyone posting tracks from that artist.”
Furnari also confirms that the war has escalated lately. “I believe the RIAA is turning their attention away from P2P (peer-to-peer file sharing) and concentrating on the blogs. They are going after the source, putting pressure on Blogger and WordPress to remove infringing content.”
“The blame,” continues Furnari, “is shared by the RIAA for not understanding that this strategy won’t begin to work after 10 years of failure, and by the few bloggers who don’t have any respect for the artists whatsoever and have been overstepping their bounds by posting full albums, or twenty-track bundles on a frequent basis.”
For now, bloggers must take this under consideration or risk their blogs’ existence and integrity.
Steve of Teenage Kicks, who was also served a takedown notice on his blog, sums it up best: “The followers of this blog … will be happy, I hope, to know that the blog is going to continue. … Looking back over the past year’s achievements, it seems a travesty and a shame to let it all go to hell over strong-arm tactics by the very people who should be supporting me.” Figuring out who that is may be the key to keeping the blogs viable.