Special Report

Stolen Hope

You don’t have to love Eminem to hate music piracy.

By 11.10.04

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"The world couldn't wait," the official website of misogynistic, gay-baiting, Kerry-supporting rap star Eminem enthuses. "Due to overwhelming demand the new Eminem album hits stores Friday the 12th!"

Actually the release date was only moved up four days, from a traditional Tuesday release on November 16 to this Friday. Are we to believe the "Eminem Show" has gotten so out of control that wannabe-tough-guy suburban kids in baggy pants would have rioted in the streets if Eminem's new record, Encore, was kept out of their hands four more days? Would their have been massive sieges of Tower Record stores? Or sit-ins at FYI? Or picketing in front of the Interscope Records offices?

Well, technically that last might be possible due to content. Eminem's past songs have, after all, included lyrics about murdering his (now) ex-wife, raping and killing his own mother, and murdering gay people, all metaphorically, of course. Artistic license, they call it, I believe. Are the youth of America so desperate to find out which family members the Grammy-winning rapper will rape and murder this time around that the record absolutely must be released four days early?

Um, probably not. This, kids, is what we call putting a good face on a bad situation. The truth is, a stolen copy of Encore has already debuted on the Internet. Millions of fans have likely downloaded the songs. As you read this, some enterprising youth is probably at work furiously breaking U.S copyright laws, burning dozen of CD copies of the record on his laptop to sell at cut rate prices to his friends at school or elsewhere. Others have saved them on their iPods and are bobbing their heads furiously, and thousands of mad-at-their-dad teenagers are learning new ways to cuss out their folks. I suppose it could be worse. They could be listening to Satanic Norwegian death metal and burning down churches. (Yes, this really happens in Europe. Check out Michael Moynihan's Lords of Chaos: The Bloody Rise of the Satanic Metal Underground for the details.)

In the aftermath of the leak, executives at Eminem's label, Interscope, went into a cold sweat. And wouldn't you? Millions of kids are in their bedrooms right now surreptitiously milking one of the company's most prized cash cows. Worse, the whole situation is like reliving a nightmare: Eminem's last record, The Eminem Show, also had to move up its release date because of piracy. The silver lining, of course, is that that record sold more than 19 million copies worldwide. This is no isolated incident, either. Geffen Records was just forced to push up the release of Snoop Dogg's R&G (Rhythm & Gangsta): The Masterpiece a week and Sony is taking the somewhat awkward step of moving Destiny's Child's Destiny Fulfilled release ahead a single day.

NEVERTHELESS, HOWEVER ONE may feel about Eminem --rational adults must find it hard to get warm and fuzzy about him -- this sort of situation is not a positive development for American capitalism, intellectual property rights, or even the arts.

Market forces have stepped in with a partial remedy. So if you've wondered why as of late major music releases have come with a cornucopia of bonus features -- DVDs, CD-ROM features, discount concert tickets, free T-shirts -- wrack your tired brain no more. It's not that the record companies have suddenly fallen in love with their buyers. It's that they are terrified of your computer and its cable modem line, and they believe the only way to bring you back is to sweeten the pot. If this is the future, woe to the artist then who is only a musician, rather than a marketing genius, maven of controversy, or a woman prepared to bare all in record sleeve photos. Record labels are still, ostensibly, about music, aren't they?

And while some might harbor romantic notions of sticking it to The Man, the truth is that, like it or not, there is a moral component to all of this. There is a word for taking without buying: Theft, and it aptly describes the mischief going on here. Most understand this is completely unconscionable with regard to local or independent acts. Burning copies of the CD of some starving artist who might only sell 5,000 copies of his record is a depraved act that suffocates the very musician the thief seeks to spread the word about. But many lose their inhibitions when it comes to superstars. Still, just as a general rule of fairness, if Eminem can sell 19 million records or more on the basis of his work, why should he not get paid for every one of them?

THIS, HOWEVER, GOES BEYOND Eminem's well-being. As mentioned before, he's going to do all right, and so will most other mega-stars. But the sales of those stars dictate more than their own destiny. The profits created for record companies by these stars are what creates the capital necessary to nurture smaller acts of all stripes. For those of us unimpressed with Eminem, Britney Spears, or any number of other stars, their success in these days of massive music conglomerates nonetheless helps determine the operating and advertising budgets of jazz, blues, and classical imprints. It's true that these genre labels are already often marginalized and overlooked, but that's no reason to help pull the trigger by turning a blind eye to theft.

It's often said that the greatest trick the devil pulled was convincing the world he does not exist. Likewise, an entire generation has come under the mistaken impression that stealing from musicians is not theft. It is a crime so commonplace it has garnered a sort of unofficial sanction. Hopefully, now that major artists and labels are feeling the sting, a more concerted effort to change attitudes and encrypt CDs will be undertaken. It's a sad state of affairs when we have to encourage supposed music lovers from killing the thing they love.

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