News Collage of the Week

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Litigation is becoming the modus operandi for rock and rollers. In the old days, problems were discreetly solved with quiet negotiations. But when the Internet came along, a band suddenly had direct access to their own fan base. Now bands have democratic distribution. Anyone can release a record. And in the rough and tumble world of independence, artists are often guided by the "do it now and apologize for it later" rule. This means the threat of lawsuits looms ever present.

The latest victim caught in the crosshairs is cult favorite Paul Westerberg. Westerberg, singer and songwriter and the previous frontman of The Replacements, came up with a novel way to launch his new album. The album, titled 49 Minutes was sold as a single download on Amazon and TuneCore. It was 49 minutes long and sold at the ridiculously low price of 49¢.

The story generated headlines from all the major press, first for marketing, then for its unusual sound. Critics loved the album, which sounded more like a sound collage. Included in the music, were a few seconds worth of mash-ups from other artist songs. Two weeks after it was originally released, Amazon and Tunecore pulled the 49 Minutes download off their sites.

And in its place, Tunecore began offering a different, exclusive Westerberg track titled, "5:05." The new song sells for 99¢.

Why did the original album get pulled? The most plausible answer is that digital retailers probably received cease and desist notices for 49 Minutes due to the mash-ups. Once they receive a notice, they simply pull the release until they are convinced they have the rights to sell it. Game over, or prepare to suffer lawsuits. It will be interesting to see what Westerberg does next.

In other news, iTunes remains the market leader in digital music sales for the first half of 2008. NDP, the retail research firm announced their findings yesterday. ITunes was followed by Walmart, Best Buy and Amazon respectively for CD and download sales. EMusic and Rhapsody, were not included in the analysis as they sell music via subscription services, making comparisons difficult.

And the big news of the week is that Google is getting into the music business in China. Google's new Music Onebox service will feature a large volume of music, free to consumers. The search engine is launching an advertising supported model, splitting income between Google and the rights owners.

Baidu, China's massive search engine, currently sends MP3 music files to websites, and has thus far avoided paying the rights to owners. It is estimated that 99 percent of music in China is illegally transferred without compensation to the artist or label.

And with the Olympic Games only days away, iTunes last night launched Songs for Tibet. The exclusive recordings feature twenty recordings from Imogen Heap, Garbage, Regina Spektor, Sting, Dave Matthews and many others. Funds from the album will go to support peace initiatives. Enough said.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.