David Byrne, DRM, Viacom, the Tao...and a New Word Game

03/17/2007 01:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's Saturday and the ether is filled with chatter and data about digital rights management in its various forms. It's clearly a sign that the changeless Tao wants this issue resolved. The record companies are in the way, though, disturbing the harmony of the worlds. The words of Lao Tzu are more true now than ever: "Music in the soul can be heard by the universe." So the RIAA should stop shouting while we're trying to listen.

And they should stop trying to use police-state tactics to force a generation of music lovers into buying their product. How's that going to turn them into loyal customers - through the Stockholm effect?

First, a quick recap of my position on the matter. Dylan's right and the record companies are putting out mostly crap. The "industry" has become a blind machine, a runaway Moloch whose ears are a thousand deaf microphones.

Meanwhle the Internet has made more music available than ever, in an ocean of digital information so vast that users can't navigate it to find the information they want. So listeners need to find voices they can trust and use them as guides.

And we need to protect Internet music from the usurious new royalty rates being imposed by the government. Let the words of the poet Diane Di Prima (and Patti Smith) inspire you.

As an experiment, I took a contrarian position on digital rights management because I'd like to see musicians and songwriters have a chance to earn a living. I'll reverse my position on DRM now, because I've been convinced by all the people who wrote me to notes of disagreement after I put up that post. They're right: the Music Industry Moloch will always misuse that kind of power.

To extract the music we want from that vast ocean, and to help musicians thrive,we need to encourage the kinds of navigational beacons people are trying to design through sites like and Dylan's own radio show. Once people have tools to find the music they love and haven't heard yet, even the most niche-oriented music can find its audience and survive.

David Byrne made a number of similar points this week in a presentation at South-By-Southwest called "Record Companies: Who Needs Them?" He points out that for digital music "there's no manufacturing or distribution costs, but somehow the artist ended up with the exact same amount.''

Funny how that happens. Production costs went down when the industry moved from vinyl to CD, too - and the prices went up. But the artists didn't get a penny more.

As for David Byrne, the decreased sound quality of digital downloads doesn't bother him: "It doesn't have to sound good to move people," he says. I agree and disagree.

I agree, in the since that my heart use to leap the first time I heard new rock & roll songs on a transistor radio. But sound quality matters. Still, the downloading of AIFF-quality files can't be an insurmountable technical challenge. If I can email AIFF files to friends, associates, and other musicians, why can't they be distributed online? It may not be vinyl, but it doesn't sound like crap.

Record companies don't have to die. Even David agrees, saying they should focus on marketing and distribution. I think they should focus on identity, too - their own. Labels as diverse Sun, King, Blue Note, Atlantic, Chess, Elektra, Impulse, Folkways -- each had an identifiable 'brand' without robbing its artists of originality and diversity. Each bore the stamp of a powerful personality who shaped the sound without creating cookie-cutter music.

Call it the 'auteur theory' of record labels. That kind of record company has a future, alongside the 'navigational beacon' model. As Lao Tzu says, "The wise man does not lay up his own treasures. The more he gives to others, the more he has for his own. "

That's why I agree with Tim Goodman of the SF Chronicle about the Viacom/YouTube lawsuit. Even though I want artists to get paid, YouTube winds up looking like the hero on this one. Viacom's assertion that they've lost $1 billion in revenue is absurd.

If Viacom had been aggressive, creative, and smart in taking advantage of Internet technology they might have lost a few million because of YouTube. Instead, like the rest of the industry they sat around and did nothing until the hive mind stepped in and filled the vacuum with something else. They haven't lost a nickel.

The spiritual, moral, and legal principle for me is "Use it or lose it." They didn't use it. They should write off past revenues. Then they should sit down with Google and figure out how to generate a modest amount of revenue for this, most of which goes back to the artists. If not, let a hundred YouTubes flourish. Let a thousand Napsters contend.

The Internet holds tremendous potential for germinating new artists and preserving current ones. It could also turn into another sterile, corporate-manipulated outlet for manufactured units of sound. masquerading as music. We don't know yet which way it will go.

So how about a word game while we're waiting? There's one on one of my favorite blogs, 3quarksdaily, but it's based on an idea that's been around for a while. It's the "six-word novel," originally inspired by Hemingway. Wired magazine even sponsored a six-word science fiction "anthology" with entries like "From torched skyscrapers, men sprouted wings."

Since it's not a new idea, I'll change it a little bit: How about a six-word autobiography, written by a fictional character? The character can come from a novel, play, film, song, or poem.

I'll start with two. First, there's the suicidal Richard Cory from the Edward Arlington Robinson poem and Simon & Garfunkel song. His autobiography? "Vince Lombardi's wrong. Winning isn't everything." Then there's the John Huston character from Chinatown: "My daughter. My self. My bad."

Your turn. As Lao Tzu says, "To see things in the seed is genius."