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And that really burns me up

by Steve McClure

If, like me, you do a lot of your work at home, I imagine you may like to listen to music as you labor through a translation, write a story or put together a PowerPoint presentation. And you probably find it convenient to listen to CDs on your computer.

Well, you may not be able to do so for much longer. That’s because major international record labels, in a controversial move aimed at combating piracy, have begun introducing so-called stealth CDs in the United States and Europe. And it looks like Japan is next.

To prevent people from “burning” copies of CDs in violation of copyright law, stealth CDs are designed to play back normally on stereos and other audio-playback devices, but not on personal computers.

A few days ago, I was rummaging through the latest batch of sample CDs I’d received, looking for some gems amid the dross, when I noticed that the good folks at V2 Records Japan had sent me the “I Am Sam” soundtrack, which consists of various artists (Sarah McLachlan, Ben Harper, Neil and Liam Finn, Stereophonics, among others) performing versions of Beatles songs. Aha, I thought, this will be fun to listen to as I pen more deathless prose for my discerning readers. So I inserted the CD into my computer’s CD drive and pressed “play,” expecting to hear Aimee Mann and Michael Penn’s rendition of “Two of Us.” Instead, I heard . . . nothing. Bugger all. Not a sausage.

Close inspection of the CD jacket revealed the following statement: “This Audio CD can not [sic] be played on PCs.”

The people at V2 Records Japan tell me that the first batch of “I Am Sam” CDs they released here were made in the European Union, but the Japan-pressed versions of the album will be playable on any device, including PCs. (Apparently, some European users weren’t able to play back their copies of the album on any machine at all.)

At least V2 had the good grace to inform users that the “I Am Sam” CDs wouldn’t play back on PCs. In the last few months, there have been various reports about record companies putting stealth CDs on the market in Europe and the United States without labeling them as such.

Some major Japanese record companies are planning to introduce these CDs here by the end of 2002. My guess is that a lot of people, like me, will not take too kindly to this, even if the CDs are clearly labeled. I’m not a thief, running some sort of counterfeit CD operation out here in the bowels of Nerima-ku. But I do like to burn CD-R compilations of J-pop, for example, for my friends overseas — I’m actually helping to publicize Japanese music internationally by doing this.

I can understand that something’s got to be done to protect copyright in the digital age, but from a PR point of view I think introducing stealth CDs is a really bad move. Such tactics only make record labels look paranoid and distrustful.

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While Japanese and South Korean politicians wrangle over textbooks and what to call the body of water between the two nations, musicians from Japan and South Korea are collaborating on a special single commemorating the upcoming World Cup soccer finals.

Appropriately titled “Let’s Get Together Now,” the song unites a male duo and a female vocalist from each country: Chemistry and Sowelu (representing Japan) and Brown Eyes and Lena Park (of South Korea). Three versions — sung in Korean, Japanese and in both languages — will be released in Japan on March 13.

We’ve all heard the cliche about music being the universal language, and like all cliches, there’s a measure of truth in that statement. In my admittedly biased opinion, music is a much better way of increasing international understanding than sports competitions such as the World Cup and the Olympics, which often give spectators a chance to indulge in tawdry and often vicious (hello, hooligans!) nationalism.

I should point out that the artists taking part in “Let’s Get Together Now” — the official FIFA World Cup “Korea/Japan” song — are signed to Sony Japan and Sony Korea, so there’s a definite commercial/promotional aspect to this joint project. But if this song and the upcoming Korea/Japan World Cup album can help bridge the divide between the two countries, then more power to Sony.