Making merger music

January 31, 2000

The Boston Globe said in an editorial last week:

The ink is barely dry on the largest merger agreement in US history and already one of the partners -- Time Warner -- is planning another one. Its $20 billion marriage with Britain's EMI, a music publishing company representing top acts from the Rolling Stones to the Spice Girls, has serious implications for art as well as business.

Consolidation in the music industry -- as in filmmaking, publishing, and other fields -- is accelerating. Such conglomeration is not always to the benefit of the music itself, since it tends to favor blockbuster acts over less mainstream efforts. But trends in the music industry are also pulling for the noncommercial artist. It is now so cheap to produce a CD -- often less than $2,000 -- that musicians don't need established labels. And computer advances like MP3 -- a technology for downloading music over the Internet -- gives less well-known artists who post their music on the Web exposure to huge new audiences.

The established powers are trying to enter the digital music market but don't want to share. This week the Recording Industry Association of America, on behalf of Time-Warner, EMI, and others, sued MP3.com for copyright violations. A new service MP3 began offering this month allows customers to copy and store music on their own CDs for later downloading into customized discs. The big labels claim that MP3.com has no right to copy the work of artists they represent, even on behalf of consumers.

The giants may have a legal point. But lawsuits cannot be allowed to stifle every innovation on the Web, especially when it holds such promise for nurturing creativity. As Paul Simon wrote long before MP3: "The music suffers, baby, the music business thrives."

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