Recording industry brings piracy on itself
It?s said that the best judge of a person?s character is what they do when nobody?s looking. If that?s true, then it appears many of us are thieves. We?re dastardly little pirates, but instead of cannoned ships, we man computers and sail the seven seas of cyberspace. We rape and pillage the noble music industry with iPods in place of eyepatches.
Or at least that?s the image being propagated by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) as it gears up to prosecute 450 college students (25 each from 18 offending college networks, including CMU and the University of Pittsburgh) for illegal file-sharing. While technically they are in the legal right, the RIAA is seriously misguided in its approach to this situation.
I?m reminded of an African proverb: An elephant may shake the ground, but it can never kill all the ants. Sure, the RIAA is a mighty organization, and maybe it can successfully wrest tuition money from 450 unsuspecting collegiate evil-doers, but it sure won?t make any friends in the process. All it will do is inspire computer geniuses (with which CMU is infested) to devise brilliant new ways of listening to their favorite songs for free. Someone needs to remind the RIAA that they?ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
The RIAA?s year-end statistics, which I obtained straight from its own website, www.riaa.com/default.asp, show that the music industry made almost exactly the same amount of money in 2004 as in 1994 ? a whole decade ago, when the term ?MP3? was gibberish. Did it ever occur to the RIAA that perhaps the 2000?2003 sales slump, which it whines was due to the advent of Napster and music downloading, was perhaps the work of the general economic recession that characterized the first few years of the 21st century?
Last month, Sandy Pearlman, a former music industry executive, put forth a viable solution while at McGill University in Toronto. He proposed putting all recorded music into a giant digital database and search engine ? iTunes meets Google ? and then drastically reducing the price of legally downloading songs to, say, five cents per song. This is yet another exceptional example of practical economics: sell more product for less money and watch profits soar.
This solution also points to another serious problem in the music industry today. CDs are, in short, too expensive. The RIAA decries illegal music downloading because they claim it deprives sedulous artists of their hard-earned royalties. But did they ever stop to think that maybe exorbitant CD prices could have the same effect? When an album costs 15 to 20 dollars, people are much less likely to take a chance on a new artist whose music they would otherwise purchase or whose concert they would attend, if only they could afford the outrageous prices.
Musical diversity has stagnated, and Britney Spears or Ashlee Simpson ? those atonal curs ? make just a few more pennies off the disenfranchised teenage masses. Meanwhile, truly kick-ass artists who happen not to be as famous or mainstream or popular go profitless.
But a troubling issue remains: the law. Legally, it is prohibited to download most copyrighted music for free, repulsive though the legitimate alternatives may be. And I am one of those idealistic suckers who believes in following the law because, after all, it?s the basis of our society, and we?re setting a pretty nasty precedent if we decide that it?s okay to obey laws on a case-by-case basis.
That?s why I believe Pearlman?s idea is a good one. I, for one, would gladly pay five cents to hear a track that I might like, and I can only assume others would, as well. iTunes, with its 99-cent downloads, is off to a good start, but it could still be better.