A couple of days ago, my colleague Andrew Garcia forwarded me what seems like the 20th plea I've seen over the past couple of years to call or write my representatives in Congress to Save Net Radio. This latest plea came from Pandora.com, a fantastic Internet-based radio station that holds more claim on my online hours than any single Web purveyor this side of Google.
If you haven't heard of Pandora, and if you like music, go check it out after you read this post. Pandora draws on a huge database that's packed with detailed information about individual songs. Pandora pairs the information in its database with your song preferences to deliver custom radio stations that play songs you may never have heard of, but that mesh well with your stated tastes.
Like every other Internet-based radio station, Pandora has been operating under the threat of large increases in the rates it must pay in exchange for playing copyrighted music over the Internet. You can check out my colleague Jim Rapoza's explanation of the Web radio threat, and his own call to help save Web radio, in his column, "Pump It Up for Web Radio."
While I love Pandora, and while I dislike the trend toward ever-broadening copyright restrictions, I think the time has come for Pandora to redirect a share of its "Save Us" efforts toward stepping up and saving itself.
As luck would have it, just as the software world offers individuals an antidote to restrictive licensing practices and to the ill-conceived laws that enforce these practices, so too does the world of music and the arts have an available--if less-recognized--antidote to the copyright mischief of the RIAA and its ilk: Creative Commons licensing.
There's a certain amount of music out there--and that amount is growing all the time--that's specifically licensed to allow for redistribution and derivation and free play over the Internet airwaves. The idea is that since obscurity is a band or musician's worst enemy, it's worthwhile for artists to choose to license their works more liberally than has been the norm, and some artists have begun embracing this model.
As a fan of the ideas around free software and free culture, I've often set out to find liberally licensed music to consume. I figure that ours is an attention economy, and that I should make an effort to reward the musicians who are embracing Creative Commons licensing by investing a portion of my attention in their content.
The trouble is that I know music through brand names--Lee Dorsey, MC Hammer, Lee Greenwood (not really). I don't know the names of the artists that license their music in a way that's immune to the Kill Net Radio forces, and while I can look up lists of artists through the Creative Commons Web site, I don't have the time to spend hours filtering through these artists to separate the wheat from the techno.
If only there was a way for me to tell a Net Radio station which artists and songs I do like, and for that station to suggest other, more liberally licensed artists and songs ... oh, that's right, there is--or, there could be: Pandora.
Unfortunately, even though the success of liberally licensed music is absolutely key to Pandora's continued survival, and even though I'm definitely not the first person to conceive of using Pandora's music database in this way, Pandora does not offer a means of connecting users with RIAA-proof music.
In order to help itself in its ongoing music licensing struggles, Pandora doesn't have to dump "proprietary" music all together. It could simply turn its excellent music locating prowess on more liberally licensed music and give Pandora listeners the option for filtering by those licenses.
There's precedent that given the presence of friendlier options, restrictive licensing schemes can be made to bend through market pressure.
Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig used to give a talk on free culture (he's hung up his copyright cleats to pursue corruption in government) in which he told the story of how BMI came into being. As Lessig tells it, ASCAP raised rates 448 percent between 1931 and 1939. BMI came along offering a slate of less attractive music to license and managed to win over a majority of broadcasters. (For more, check out Lawrence Lessig's free culture presentation here; the ASCAP/BMI story comes in around the 5:44 mark.)
I find it too audacious to hope that Congress will get around to right-sizing our country's runaway IP regulation regime any time soon, so if the businesses that run Internet radio stations and the listeners who frequent them want to see this form of enjoying music continue, they should begin marshaling their (in Pandora's case, considerable) resources toward solving the problem themselves.