Face the Music

I was the first among my friends to install Napster. I still remember my parents calling me into the family room to watch a nightly news segment about Shawn Fanning – the backwards-baseball cap wearing undergraduate student – and his innovative new program which allowed users to upload song files and share them with each other for free.

Although I don’t remember the exact content of the report, I do recall that in these early days of P2P networks the public focus was never really on copyright infringement. No one did, or perhaps even could, anticipate the extent to which this new phenomenon would spread.

This was novel. This was nothing wrong. This was Napster.

But then, of course, reality intervened, economics intervened. In 2000, Metallica discovered one of its new songs (the prophetically titled “I Disappear”) had been leaked onto the network and was being shared by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. And so the lawsuits began. And so the music industry’s problem became the world’s problem. And so Napster was shut down.

All of a sudden, the topic of file-sharing was discussed in a whole new light.
It was no longer as harmless as little kids trading baseball cards. It was in direct violation of U.S. copyright laws. It was stealing. Even my parents – the same people who first encouraged me to check out Napster – were now condemning it.

However, taking Napster offline did not end what had become (and, in some ways, still is) the music industry’s biggest threat to business as usual, to its bottom line. Because, like me, like my friends, all of the original users simply switched over to one of the countless other imitations which now existed.

I can still visualize sitting in the waiting room at the dentist office when I picked up a copy of Newsweek and read a short article comparing these new file-sharing websites. And so I installed WinMX. And when that was shut down, I got SoulSeek.

I never uploaded music. I only downloaded songs. I didn’t do it for the thrill or as a way of sticking it to the music industry. The decision was based more upon a naive, simplistic train of thought: Why pay for something when you can get it for free?

But, this isn’t a confession; it’s a call for a brand new mindset.

For those in the business of making and distributing music, the Internet has been both a blessing and a curse. Countless bands whose music would have previously gone unheard can now parlay their 200,000 listens on Myspace into a record deal; labels which previously had to rely on retail outlets to sell their products can now realize larger profits by exploring new online strategies and/or selling albums directly to consumers

On the other hand, the prevalence of broadband connections has also opened the door to a highly visible black market, one in which individual songs and whole albums are disseminated without any regard to who owns the rights to their distribution.

In order to survive, the music industry needs to recognize this duality. Record companies much accept that the Internet will always be a haven for those who wish to share music for free. But it can also be a wealth of opportunity.

At least once a month it seems a new website pops up offering a unique business model and a new way for labels and artists to make money.

One such example is Amie Street, an online social network/music store which operates according to the laws of demand – all songs start out as free and the price rises as more people purchase them (up to a cap of $0.99) (Robinson, 2006).

However, instead of pursuing more proactive approaches like these to actually make money, the record industry is wasting its time tracking down the revenue it believes it is losing.

This type of reactive behavior not only causing the major record labels to lose profits, but also to lose the respect of consumers, 80,000 have signed a petition sponsored by the Electronic Frontier Foundation which demands that Congress put an end to RIAA’s destructive practices (“RIAA petition,” n.d.).

To show how absurd this quest for reparation has gone: in December of 2007, the RIAA sued Jeffrey and Pamela Howell for merely ripping song files off CDs they had legally purchased and storing them on their home computer (Bangeman, 2007b).

According to RIAA spokesperson Jennifer Pariser, “‘When an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song’” (as cited in Bangeman, 2007b).

Clearly, the RIAA wants to have its cake and eat it too – telling consumers to purchase music through legal channels and then telling them what they can and cannot do once they have.

If the RIAA and the record companies it represents don’t want to acknowledge “fair use,” they certainly should not expect fair play.

References

Bangeman, E. (2007b, December 11). RIAA: Those cd rips of yours are still “unauthorized.” Retrieved April 19, 2008, from Ars Technica Web site: http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20071211-riaa-those-cd-rips-of-yours-are-still-unauthorized.html

Robinson, B. (2006, October 4). Amie Street takes innovative music model into beta. Retrieved April 19, 2008, from Tech Crunch Web site: http://www.techcrunch.com/2006/10/04/amie-street-takes-innovative-music-model-into-beta/

RIAA petition (n.d.) Retrieved April 19, 2008, from Electronic Frontier Foundation Web site: http://w2.eff.org/share/petition/

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