What’s Wrong?

These days, there’s a lot being said about the effects of illegal downloading through filesharing, album-providing .rar blogs, private forums, and even folks like me (mp3 bloggers). Don’t get me wrong: I am against illegal downloading of albums. I believe labels deserve to be paid for the service they are providing and, more importantly, I believe that if what they are providing is not worth my money then it is also not worth stealing. But I feel differently about individual tracks. A single song, ripped at low quality, is a taste, not a meal. Like a sampler spoon at the ice cream parlor. If an mp3 dropped here or there stimulates sales of an album, then the Industry wins and so do the artists. And if the buyer is able to sample first, s/he’s more likely to enjoy what is purchased. Everybody wins!

I’ve been research this issue, and I haven’t found a single report showing that artists who are frequently traded on filesharing networks have fewer sales than those who are not. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. Case in point: The Kanye album leaked weeks before it dropped. I heard the leak, and that’s what made me buy it. The same was true for Jay-Z’s last record. And though both of those releases had sales that lagged behind their earlier efforts, they were far from disappointing. Moreover, again, there were lots of other reasons why the sales might have declined (not the least of which was that those albums simply weren’t as good as previous efforts by those artists). I believe that music sales would be lagging today even if there was no such thing as bittorrent.

To elaborate: While it’s a fact that record sales are experiencing a downward trend, it’s hardly clear that this doesn’t just represent a trend in the lifecycle of the music industry. Based on my own research, I’ve found studies showing similar dips in entertainment sales during other decades, credited to various wars, the death of disco, and the Great Depression. Let’s see . . .

In the last eight years, when sales have begun to decline, we’ve been at war, we’ve seen Britney and Lindsey implode (striking a death blow to their bubblegumpop genre), and economically America (and to a lesser extent the rest of the world) has slouched dramatically. Home sales are down. Car sales are down. Movie sales are down. Why shouldn’t music sales be down, too? And how has the Music Industry responded to the increased competition and perilous economic realities? Have they lowered prices? No. Have they offered other incentives to purchase? Not really.

And there are other reasons to consider. For one thing, the cult of personality extends far beyond music these days. Hardcore music fans who were into Tiger Beat or Rolling Stone morphed into fans of Jamie Foxx and Paris Hilton (after going through a brief Shaun Cassidy phase –brrr!) Today’s stars are multimedia. Music just isn’t the central focus of kids lives. My kids and their friends are much more likely to gather around a Nintendo DS and watch each other play than they are to try and figure out why Paul McCartney is walking barefoot across Abbey Road. And there’s so much more of it. It used to be there were a few major labels and they could cram into our ears whatever piece of Kenny Loggins tripe they wanted. Now it’s easier and cheaper to produce music, so there’s more competition. I thought capitalists liked competition?

Apparently not.

Technology has also had other effects (but, I would argue, not the horribles paraded around by the RIAA). Album sales increased sharply after the advent of CD players, when most of us frantically tried to replace our worn vinyl copies of Dark Side of the Moon and The Best of Jim Nabors. But by now we’ve filled that need, and we’ve started spending money (billions) on other home entertainment products like DVDs (to replace the VCR tapes that we started buying around the same time we started buying CDs).

And with the rise of CDs came the fall of 45s. Instead of getting a single of “Carry On My Wayward Son,” we were forced to buy a boxed set full of stuff we would program our CD players not to play. But now, with iTunes, we can get all the beef and none of the toenails and tails. Hallelujah! Of course, that means nobody’s buying the boxed sets anymore. Because 80% of most albums are crap. Especially albums bought by teens, who were the ones who were inflating the market during the late 90s anyway, buy grabbing albums by every belly-shirted attractive nuisance they could find.

But the Major Labels want to ignore the fact that we are now able to order a la carte, there many, many more sources of entertainment competing for our dollars, and the world is at war and facing a pretty bad economy. Why? Because they haven’t found the Next Big Thing. We’re tired of teen pop and sick of bling rap. They were fun for a while (notwithstanding 98 Degrees and Chingy), but we’re ready for something else. The Music Industry used to have leaders: When vinyl sales lagged, they invented CDs. When CD sales were underwhelming, they invented boxed sets. Now, they’re struggling because they enjoyed relatively risk-free dominance in terms of expected profits within the larger Entertainment Industry — it costs less to make, market, and distribute an album, and music translates better than film or books to a non-English-speaking audience. But they should remember that they only enjoyed that dominance for about 45 years—since the birth of Rock and Roll—and their profits were built on the backs of kids. If they want to keep capturing the disposable income of teens and college-goers, they need to move with the market, not against it. When cassette tapes came out, the Industry cried: Nobody will buy albums anymore! They’ll just tape them for their friends! But investments in infrastructure (such as better speakers, digital recordings, better packaging for albums—who didn’t spread out the tri-fold of Frampton Comes Alive?) quickly squashed those fears. The same was true when VCRs came out, and D.A.T., and recordable CDs and DVDs.

So let’s assume it’s true that downloading is responsible for all their problems (which it isn’t). The solution, then, should be more downloading! Adapting to the new technology (rather than prosecuting those who take advantage of it) is more likely to yield results. How? Hell, I don’t know for sure, I’m just an idiot with a typewriter. But surely the geniuses who thought up all the innovations of the past 50 years can come up with something better than cease-and-desist letters. Maybe the labels should look at the Pearl Jam/Grateful Dead business models. Those bands always sold records even though they were taper-friendly and thousands of bootlegs are all over the market. Again: Freely distributed material stimulates the purchase of other material. It’s a fact. Or perhaps the answer lies in more creating distribution techniques. iTunes is great, but it’s hardly the be-all-and-end-all. For one thing, its product generally has a limited use (i.e., iPods) and they don’t provide every song known to man. Emusic is thriving with its own business model, so others must be possible. Perhaps labels should start making contracts to represent other aspects of their artists’ careers — making shows available on line can’t cost all that much, can it? What about selling lesser-knowns as bonus downloads with the purchase of similar artists with established reputations?

Maybe the answer is to return to the days when music meant something. Let the artists control their product. Stop looking for huge profits, and start looking to create art. Most artists are at their best when they are starving, even (or especially) the ones who aspire to Get Rich Or Die Trying. Digital records and online distribution are cheap and efficient and, even better, they capitalize on the tendency of humans to impulse buy. Radiohead has learned that. The Stars learned it. Why can’t the RIAA?

Arguably, the rise of the Music Industry as a huge, profit-seeking entity was built on the backs of illegal activities like payola and survived on shady recording contracts that screwed artists and tactics that drove musicians to depths like depression and drug addiction. If indeed illegal downloading plays a part in the demise of the monolith, perhaps that’s only fitting. Even if it’s not true.

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