Imperfectly Clear

Clear Channel wants listeners to respect the music, but isn't quick to take its own advice.

Proof Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue Through February 2, 216-795-7000.

"How many clicks does it take to put a 20 percent dent in CD sales?" Clear Channel asks in one of its new radio spots. "How many clicks does it take before 99 percent of all music on the web is illegal? How many clicks before an entire generation stops buying music at all?"

Clear Channel, the radio behemoth that owns six stations in the Cleveland market, has suddenly taken an interest in campaigning against Internet music piracy, armed with a series of 30-second "public-service announcements" designed to prey on listeners' guilt.

How many clicks?

"One," comes the answer, delivered via the refrains of songs by Clear Channel crusaders including Creed and Metallica. Then comes the clincher: "Internet music piracy . . . respect the music."

But heeding Clear Channel's call to "respect the music" is like enrolling in a checkbook-balancing seminar at WorldCom. Are we to assume that Clear Channel itself even cares about the music? Time for a quick recap: The Clear Channel folks have stockpiled more than 1,300 radio stations in the past five years, shortened those stations' playlists, increased commercial time, and embraced legal payola to the extent that it's now too cost-prohibitive for anyone but the most well-funded labels to get songs played in rotation.

But even if you buy the "respect the music" line -- which requires the kind of blind faith expected of a Tribe fan -- Clear Channel's hyperbole-heavy argument that downloading is the reason for the music industry's slump is downright laughable.

"We've done the calculations," the Clear Channel ad informs us. Well let us do some of our own. It's no secret that CD sales were down 20 percent last year. Never mind that we're in a recession, and that holiday shopping (which accounts for a significant chunk of overall album sales) was off by anywhere from 10 to 15 percent.

Last year was also The Year the Trends Died -- namely teen pop and nü-metal, the industry's twin cash cows since the late '90s. But don't blame downloading -- blame overloading: 'N Sync and Korn each put out three albums in four years, the Backstreet Boys had four in five years, and Britney served up three in three years. What fad wouldn't burn out at that pace?

Moreover, the music industry has always run in cycles; from 1996 to 1997 (before downloading was a factor), overall sales dropped by 25 million copies, then rebounded the following year. Who did the industry blame then? No one, because in any business, there are good years and bad years -- and because no worthy scapegoats were available.

That's not the case today. Clear Channel knows there are dark forces at work here -- forces like Skippy, the computer-lab geek who downloaded the latest Phish platter, rather than investing $18 in a shrink-wrapped copy at Record Town.

Still, it's easy to see why Clear Channel would want to curtail online file-sharing. The company's buying spree resulted in enormous debt, and its stock prices have fallen 25 percent from a year ago. Clear Channel has tried to stop the bleeding by boosting commercial time and increasingly relying on pay-for-play tactics (it now costs upward of $5,000 to get a song into rotation on a single Clear Channel station). The result is less music being played, as well as less variety -- and more and more labels that can't afford to get their songs aired. For them, the Internet makes for an appealing alternative. And once everyone tunes out the radio and tunes into the Internet, Clear Channel will lose its stranglehold on advertisers and labels.

Clear Channel is very much aware of this. So it hired Andrew Levin, a former big shot with the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, to lobby Congress to further loosen already lax restrictions on radio while further attacking online music providers. (Phone calls to Clear Channel were not returned in time for this story.)

These steps reveal Clear Channel's ad campaign for what it is: a cosmetic move that portrays the radio giant as an industry crusader, when in fact it's merely using a natural sales ebb to quash a threatening medium.

In the face of all this, the company has the audacity to ask you to respect the music? We think it's time Clear Channel starts to practice what it preaches. Or better yet, stop the preaching altogether.

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