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° Rubrique About The World

ABOUT The World ...  

Par Claude Chastagner, professeur d'anglais à l'Université Paul Valéry à Montpellier.

   Fan Power Battling for power on the Internet 

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Many professionals of the culture industry have openly defended these sites, calling them "very effective obsession incubators"2, contending that they give programs and artists, particularly the more obscure ones, greater exposure. A few artists have even occasionaly worked with them. Musicians like the Beastie Boys, Offspring, or Chuck B., film makers like New Line Cinema, the company behind Lord of the Ring, have expressed the conviction that files-sharing sites expand bands' fan bases, a belief facts seem to confirm since in music, for instance, last year's sales rose from $13.7 to 14.6 billion3. The issue is often couched in terms of obsolete and hypocritical corporate control against street wisdom, while the founders of the sites are portrayed as paradigms of intelligence, independence, and modernity opposed to middle-aged, stilted, ossified corporate executives. 

Thus, for Tony Dimitriades, Tom Petty's manager, "Artists ... want to have a direct relationship with their fans. And the record companies, because they're trying to control something that's going out of their control, are getting in the way."4 Courtney Love has been particularly aggressive in challenging the majors, arguing that they are the real thieves, depriving artists of the money they should be making5. Her attack shifted the debate from the copyright issue to the role actually played by the majors, who, from righteous plaintiffs, were turned into villains, which ultimately ridiculed the moral justifications of their attacks.

  Yet, the most striking phenomenon is not the artists' reaction but the way fans are starting to unite and are fostering what some describe as a consumer rebellion, "a consumer-led revolution"6. Though most of these sites were started just for fun, by youngsters merely eager to share their favourite sounds or images, they now symbolize a righteous cause, "a moral battle" (Nazar). Teenage fans have started a form of resistance and have in the process raised again the issue of free-speech which had lain dormant for the last decade, with sites like Webmaster War III leading the crusade against what they consider as "a corporate slap in the face" (NYT 20 Sept).

The forum pages of the sites are overwhelmed by thousands of messages from users voicing their anger, offering legal tips against cease-and-desist letters, coordinating lobbying or boycotting campaigns but also warning their champions against the risk of "selling out". Indeed, Napster's founder, 19-year-old Shawn Fanning, or 16-year-old Eric Greene, of Comic Relief, a Simpsons site, have now become heroes and are refered to as Davids fighting the Goliaths of the entertainment industry, the new Robin Hoodesque heroes of popular mythology, the formidable and likeable villains who challenge the establishment and the powers that be, the worthy offsprings of Elvis Presley, Fritz the Cat, Eminem and Bart Simpson. But are they?

  Though it was not their original intention, they certainly have articulated the cause of a major concern: the monopolistic organisation and omnipotence of the entertainment industry. Indeed, most of the sounds and images available in the Western world are now controled by a handful of companies, and globalisation has reached new heights with the recently approved AOL-Time Warner merger. Concentration is taking place at two levels: first, between a purveyor of content, Time Warner, and an Internet access provider, AOL, and second, between three purveyors of content, since Time Warner may in the future acquire EMI and AOL has shares in BMG. AOL-Time Warner is now the largest media company in the world and has unparalleled bargaining power with both producers and consumers. 

Furthermore, others mergers soon should take place, with Vivendi about to acquire Seagram, the entertainment and liquor conglomerate, to create the world's second-largest media company8. The dangers of the consolidations currently taking place in the industry are real enough to justify the demand by the European and American Trade Commissions of strong guarantees before approving the deals.

  The interests at stake may explain the virulence of the industry's response to files-sharing sites, which are after all but a minor threat to their hegemony. At the heart of the issue is the all-pervading force of the nInternet. The Internet will soon be the hub around which our daily lives revolve, as it becomes connected to everything, from TV sets, stereos, cars, and telephones, to banks, shops, or restaurants. In the realm of culture and entertainment, the Internet will be the ultimate medium through which all the others are processed. In a matter of months now, movie theaters will no longer be sent film reels but digital data through the Internet; books, newspapers, radios, and TV programs will be broadcast or published via the Internet. People will have access to whatever they want, whenever they want it, wherever they are; as a result, the very notions of regular programming hours or official dates of release will become obsolete. 

TV and radios channels, publishing houses and record companies will just make their products available on line, which will entail the demise of the transient but tangible community of viewers, listeners or readers consuming a given product at the same moment. As time and space factors lose their importance, the control of distribution, i.e., of Internet providers, becomes crucial, which raises the issue of content control, censorship, and freedom of access. The new media juggernauts would have the power to crush many of their competitors. 

Who will eventually rule the market? In the case of the AOL-Time Warner merger for instance, Time Warner's control of the cable systems could give it the power to shut out all Internet rivals in favor of America Online. Time Warner's contents could become accessible to AOL subscribers only, whose vision of the world could in turn be controlled exclusively by Time Warner.

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° Rubrique About The World