After spending much of the last year watching the explosive growth of the MP3 movement and engaging in what could best be described as a collective industry-wide freak out, the Recording Industry is striking back, moving forcefully to regain market share in a market it had until quite recently been hoping would go away.
The industry counterattack - which experts had been predicting for over a year - represents a fundamental shift in strategy, away from costly lawsuits (which as it happens, the industry had been losing with prodigious regularity) and into the hostile enemy territory of the web.
A series of well-funded site launches have have made it perfectly clear that the Industry is serious about making up for lost time.
Firstlook.com, a start up backed by capital from legendary Silicon Valley Venture Capital Firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Beyers, is one new site with close ties to the industry.
Pass through Firstlook, which provides visitors with Billboard-style charts in popular genres ranging from Christian to Jazz and Blues, and it's unlikely you'll notice anything out of the ordinary at first glance.
Until, that is, it steps up and hits you in the face like a sucker punch from a short man in a cheap suit soaked in drug store-bought cologne.
The site's artists are real.
They're known. You've heard of them. They have recording contracts. They're on MTV.
And they're on the web.
A veteran MP3 tracker's eyes are likely to roll back in their head at this point. This is a far cry from sites like MP3.com, where most artists are relative unknowns.
Ice Cube. Beck. Coolio. Sheryl Crow. The Foo Fighters. Limp Bizkit. Smashing Pumpkins.
The list of established names is impressive. And it goes on... And to tell the truth it would all be very impressive and wonderful and all sorts of superlative adjectives if it wasn't for a single troubling fact that raises serious questions about ethics and morals and a word you probably haven't heard in a long time - payola.
The fact is, that although the sites artists are real, the charts aren't.
They represent nothing. Not airplay. Not unit sales. For the record, the Number One slot doesn't go to the act which deserves it most, or the act which sells the most CD's, it actually goes to the act with the deepest pockets.
On inspection, the Firstlook business model turns out to be very similar to that of many other Internet companies trying to find ways to make a profit by delivering content to web surfers.
An artist's position on Firstlook is determined by how much an advertiser is willing to pay. Advertising costs are based on the same cost per click method Internet companies often use to sell web site banner advertising. Advertisers pay a set amount for every visitor who clicks on an artist's link. Click on the link to the BackStreet Boys, for example, and the band's promoter pays Firstlook thirteen cents.
So what's wrong with that?
Er...well...actually probably a lot.
First of all, the practice misleads consumers, who quite rightly, expect there to be some distinction made between editorial content and advertising. Second ...If it was happening anywhere else but on the Internet it would be illegal.
Pay for play has been illegal in the United States since the 1950's , when Cleveland DJ Allan Freed was busted for accepting payments from record promoters in a scandal that forced the Recording Industry to clean up it's act. The payola scandals prompted government regulation - laws that on the surface at least, forced the record companies to play fair..
No such laws govern Internet commerce. (Although there have been ominous rumblings from some quarters about the need for regulation following the widespread coverage of the recent DoubleClick scandal, where the Internet's leading advertising agency admitted improperly handling consumer data.)
Serious regulation is likely to be years away. In the meantime, companies like Firstlook are perfectly within their rights (legally speaking) to do whatever they want on their web sites. If that means misleading consumers or pushing crappy acts at the expense of bands with real talent, there ain't nothing we can do about it.
In an interview with the Industry Standard's Michael Learnmonth, FirstLook President and CEO Rand Bleimeister defended the practice of paid placement on the company's web site, making the very lawyerlike argument that while Firstlook may at first glance look a lot like a music site, the site is actually something entirely different.
It's not a music site at all.
According to Bleimeister the site can correctly be described as a "preview marketing company."
A preview marketing company.
In other words, a revenue-generating rationalization incorporated in the state of Delaware.
Just who do they think they're fooling?...
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