Who benefits from your support for “online music”?

FreePress.net claims that “[o]nline music is in danger”:

Online music is in danger. A recent ruling by an obscure regulatory board threatens to put independent and public radio on the Internet out of business.

The “Copyright Royalty Board” is dramatically increasing the royalties “webcasters” must pay every time they stream a song online. Public Internet radio like NPR is especially at risk.

The rules could shut down nonprofit and smaller commercial Internet radio outlets and force larger webcasters to play the same cookie-cutter music as Clear Channel. So much for new online alternatives.

No, online music is not in danger. FreePress.net is talking about music from members of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a lobbyist organization for corporate record labels. It might become more difficult to webcast tracks published by RIAA members due to a new fee schedule. But there are plenty of artists licensing their music to share. It’s time to work with those artists and send a clear message to the major label artists that they need us more than we need them.

More importantly there’s the question of (even indirectly) doing business with the RIAA””why lobby to play those tracks when the RIAA treats the public so badly? Answering this question can easily bring one to conclude that it’s not ethically justifiable to do business with the RIAA.

I’m far more concerned about small personal Internet radio stations than I am about music broadcasters that collect money through advertising (like NPR) or from their listeners. This rate hike might be just the impetus to play stuff from artists who allow us to share. Smaller digital broadcasters might be inspired to carry more public affairs programming and play more locally-originated music (local bands and artists passing through town looking for a promotional gig, to name a couple examples).

“New online alternatives” are looking for opportunities to work with artists who treat them nicely. Some of these alternatives set up labels like Magnatune, Kahvi and Jamendo filled with music that you can share.

Artists must be compensated for their work. But the new regulations don’t even differentiate between public outlets, small upstarts, and the largest commercial companies. The proposed increase would silence many outlets that play independent artists and musical genres you can’t find anymore on the radio dial.

Many artists distribute their work gratis and allow you to do the same. But if you believe in this particular artist compensation system, you should get the details on how your payment will make it to the artists. The labels have a lot to prove; signed artists make albums to climb out of label-induced debt.

A different artist compensation system idea builds on sharing music:

Imagine that we have a digital cash system that enables you to get money for your work. Imagine that we have a digital cash system that enables you to send somebody else money through the Internet; this can be done in various ways using encryption, for instance. And imagine that verbatim copying of all these aesthetic works is permitted. But they’re written in such a way that when you are playing one or reading one or watching one, a box appears on the side of your screen that says, “Click here to send a dollar to the author,” or the musician or whatever. And it just sits there; it doesn’t get in your way; it’s on the side. It doesn’t interfere with you, but it’s there, reminding you that it’s a good thing to support the writers and the musicians.

So if you love the work that you’re reading or listening to, eventually you’re going to say, “Why shouldn’t I give these people a dollar? It’s only a dollar. What’s that? I won’t even miss it.” And people will start sending a dollar. The good thing about this is that it makes copying the ally of the authors and musicians. When somebody e-mails a friend a copy, that friend might send a dollar, too. If you really love it, you might send a dollar more than once and that dollar is more than they’re going to get today if you buy the book or buy the CD because they get a tiny fraction of the sale. The same publishers that are demanding total power over the public in the name of the authors and musicians are giving those authors and musicians the shaft all the time.

Richard Stallman speaking at MIT in 2001 (partial transcript, full recording)

Labels could still exist (people like filters that help them find the “good” stuff), so long as they don’t interfere with the listener’s freedom to share. Under this kind of system the artist would retain the copyright to their recordings and songs instead of signing them over to a label, and the listener can be encouraged to do what fans do naturally””share what they love.