Jeff Vrabel: Record companies spreading a little evil this fall

Jeff Vrabel

With the economy falling to pieces, the country ensnared in two wars, Greenland down to about the size of a decent-size sirloin steak right now, instant replay coming to baseball, asteroids flying through space to kill us all, Sarah Palin getting airtime like she's some sort of legit political figure, and the national mood sour and black, it's only reasonable to wonder:

"But what of the major record companies, how are they holding up, and is there any way they can maybe spread a little evil this fall while simultaneously chopping holes in their dated, ever-sinking business model with a large, metaphoric battle axe?"

Good question. The four major record companies, who collectively enjoy public approval ratings about as jolly as if you stapled President Bush to that woman who called Obama an Arab at a McCain rally, tied them both to the reunited New Kids on the Block and dropped them into Alfonso Soriano's house (still not over it), have spent 18 months pushing an increase in royalty rates for online radio stations.

The current rate was set in a decision last year by the Library of Congress' Copyright Royalty Board — boy, are those people bad at beer pong — and is high enough that Tim Westergren, one of the founders of the popular Web radio site, said his site uses 70 percent of its gross revenue to pay for just that.

An royalty bump would, as such, bankrupt Pandora, which is already laying off employees like they're a newspaper or something. Millions of the site's users would be forced to go back to obtaining music online like they did before, which was stealing it wholesale off of LimeWire and BitTorrent and not feeling terribly guilty about any of it.

If you have not availed yourself of the joys of Pandora, please stop reading this column right now, find the nearest computer (if there's someone in front of it, just shove them out of the way, as this is totally more important), and go to

There you can create your own "stations" by telling the site which musicians you like already; Pandora, using your recommendations, listening history, bits of your DNA it can sweep up from your keyboard and occlumency, will offer suggestions for other songs you might like. It's sort of the same idea as iTunes' new Genius Bar, but it won't make you spend $20 impulsively while drinking wine at night.

Pandora doesn't always work - my Bruce Springsteen station once turned up Rick Springfield, which, needless to say, propelled me into a fit of rage in which I threw a flaming Honda Civic into a youth center. But by and large, Pandora will, over the course of an hour, turn you on to about a half-dozen artists or songs you probably didn't know about before. The site currently boasts about 16 million users; an iPhone app is a smash.

Such a device - sending music fans off to explore new and/or unknown artists - is, of course, an unbearable hell on the record industry.

They’d prefer you just listen to the new Britney Spears single, preferably by buying it online for a price that that if it wasn't for Apple they could get away with, which is $28.99, and then shut up, other than to thank them for their generosity and ask them politely if there's any way they could speed up the new releases by Nickelback, Kenny Chesney and the droid with the "I Kissed A Girl" song.

(Listen, I know I'm driving right on the music-was-better-in-my-day lane here, but, seriously, that kid needs to try vocalizing more than 2.5 notes. Start with something easy, with G, then branch out from there. The possibilities are just wild.)

Thanks to a quick (and unlikely) deal earlier this month, the Senate approved a bill that gives the record industry and Web broadcasters until Feb. 15 to renegotiate a new rate.

The deal gives sites like Pandora and a few more months of existence, and allows the record companies some time to sue some more 11-year-olds while they wait.

Yes, yes, stealing is bad; we all went to elementary school. But I've yet to hear someone argue how exposing music fans to more music is a bad thing for an industry that sells music — like, for instance, how they do it on terrestrial radio, except with about 90 billion fewer songs.

They've got a few more months to figure this out, and it could happen, although if you believe in the good-faith, negotiating power of the record industry, I have some Rick Springfield CDs to sell you.

Jeff Vrabel is a freelance writer who seriously needs Google to develop Genius Bar Goggles. He can be reached at