Yes, I am going to rail on this again. Yes, there are more important, globally-impacting events going on in our world. Yes, Iran is the new Iraq, the economy is in the tank, and even so, Michael Jackson probably should have been the topic of this column.
Or Billy Mays.
But dammit, we still find ourselves mired in a bizarro universe in which record companies are hell bent on suing their customers as a primary marketing strategy (the secondary strategy being placing hit singles in Burger King commercials), resulting in the further splintering of the culture and the unfortunate accident of the Jonas Brothers being recognized as the most significant artist of the last several years.
Michael would not approve.
The case against Jammie Thomas is somewhat fascinating. One of the 30,000+ targets of the RIAA's blind and broad counterattacks against pirates (Ahhr!), those illegal downloaders and sometimes distributors of copyright protected music, the suburban Minnesota housewife was one of a handful that fought back. Well, the fight went poorly, resulting in a 2007 loss of $222K in damages, and a rematch that resulted in a shocking $1.9 million penalty. The RIAA maintains they are open to settling and in fact will continue to encourage Thomas to go this route. She likely will. I wish she wouldn't. But what are you going to do? Eventually, she's got to live her life again. And there are precious few voices supporting her.
The biggest name to step up this time around has been Moby, in a blog post. I mean, Moby is great and all (insert white whale joke here), but where are the black-leather-clad rebels of the music industry? Where is Tom Petty? Where is Prince? Where is Green Day? Where are all those shut-up-and-singers now that their own personal puppet masters are the ones engaging in dollar-dollar-bill-fueled oppression? I guess it's easy to rage against the machine when the machine isn't cutting your paycheck.
But I'm not here to complain. I'm not here to defend the pirates (Ahhr!). Instead, I'm here to illustrate yet again that file sharing is not only NOT killing the music industry, but it's also their own fault. And even though the concept of a lone woman with an Acer bringing down the empire of Jay-Z is ludicrous at best, sometimes we all need to be reminded that water is, indeed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, still wet.
Let's start historically.
Back in the 80s when greed was good, the music industry blindly embraced digital recording and the compact disc. This was a move intended to place profit margins within spitting distance of the legal side of racketeering. To say they were unaware of the paradoxical issue of immediate and pristine transferability that lay ahead is to say that they didn't know not to stick their fingers in the blender.
"Wow! Look at how fast we can copy master recordings without any reduction in the quality!"
"Amazing! Good thing we music industry moguls are the only people in the world in possession of these fancy com-put-ors. Now, hand me another kilo of cocaine and let's go worship Satan, but not in the cool, heavy metal way."
Furthermore, did this groundbreaking advance in technology lower the price or increase the variety of product? In fact, it did the opposite. Remember the $21.99 CD? At the time of the $7.99 cassette? Me too. And availability shrank dramatically. I still can't get a lot of my old records or cassettes on CD (If anyone has Klark Kent, I need it).
Fig 1. The Jolly Roger Index. Ease of Piracy vs. Understanding of Technology Within the Industry
|Media||Ease of Piracy||Technical Understanding||Piracy Quotient|
|Music||So Easy It's Almost Asking You To Do It||Feigned Ignorance|
|First Run Movies||Only Possible With Hollywood Connections and Thievery||Actual Ignorance|
|DVDs||With Some Geekery||Believes Multiple Unskippable Interpol Warnings Will Save the Day|
|Console Video Games||Much Geekery And Also Alchemy||Invented It|
|Books||Involves Actual Ripping. Of Pages.||Afraid of Copiers|
The easier the media is to pirate (Ahhr!) and the less the industry understands and embraces technology, the more likely it is that the pirates (Ahhr!) will run rampant. So essentially the record companies stepped on their own junk by rushing into an unmandated digital format, justifying it with unimaginable pricing, then inventing copy-protection methods that were one giant blunder after another.
It's not like record companies never propped up an idiot to shift a million units before. In fact, you might call Ice, Hammer, and Vanilli the perfect shitstorm. But in the case of Ice, they went way too far. Even the executives at SBK were like "Really? Van Winkle? With that haircut? You're sure we can get away with this?" They proceeded with caution for a few years before finally succumbing to the God-like powers they inexplicably enjoyed, and it was more like "Watch this, we're gonna do a Vanilla Ice movie. This is gonna be messed UP."
It may seem unrelated, but this phenomenon started the ball rolling and wound up changing how record companies made their money.
Fig 2. Revenue Sources for Record Companies Over Time
|Kickbacks from Satan for the Selling of Artists' Souls||5%|
|Kickbacks from Licensing Horrible Songs to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Adams Family Sequels||5%|
|Unsustainable Business Models|
|Dividends to Your Mother||15%|
|Rights to Behind the Music Episodes||15%|
|Kickbacks from Guest Appearances on Disney Channel Television Shows||5%|
The silver lining around this whole aberration is that it caused grunge. Which I liked. Until about 1994.
They've got the wrong guy. Or gal, as it were. I don't care if Jammie Thomas downloaded 1700 songs or 22 songs. This is not the issue. The real pirates (Ahhr!), the ones really doing the damage, are the ones they can't catch -- the real nerds hopping from server to server and downloading half-a-million mp3s in a weekend because they can. Furthermore, any real profits left in the industry after their own lavish mismanagement (see: Vanilla Ice) are being siphoned off overseas by companies repackaging and reselling the stuff they steal.
The real pirates (Ahhr!) are neither easy nor profitable to go after. And they're not exactly shaking in their adidums (lower price, extra stripe!) watching Jammie Thomas being forced to scrounge up the $1.9 million she or her kids or their punk friends obviously gained, ill-gottenly, from downloading 22 or 1700 songs to her personal computer.
The outcry against the record companies' hamhanded tactics in the name of crushing piracy (Ahhr!) may be waning, but it's still an important fight, especially for those of us who care about music, popular culture, and how those two things can coexist without Casey Kasem getting involved. There have been strides, like freeing us from DRM and Radiohead's recent giveaway, but these are coming from distributors like Amazon and the artists themselves. Events like this remind us that the labels are still out for blood from any stone, rolling or not.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
7.1.09 @ 9:46a
People who really care about music, I mean really CARE about it, are not buying CDs and downloading MP3s. They are embracing the resurgence of the LP and good ol' analog tape. Reproducing sounds via digital audio signals would make more sense if our ears were digital receivers, but they're not. Our "hammers and anvils" cannot fill in the spaces digital encoding leaves in a sound curve. A quality analog signal will always sound much better (to those who care) than a digital signal. It's just a fact. So the fact that the RIAA is getting so upset about a mom in Minnesota downloading what amounts to several hundred minutes of crap is laughable. And yes, it IS Vanilla Ice's fault.
7.1.09 @ 10:48a
Maybe, Ted. But it's really hard to swap tapes on the reel-to-reel while you're humpin' I-75 through Atlanta at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon.
7.1.09 @ 12:24p
CDs and MP3s do have some utility, but Joe mentioned "those of us who care about music," and that is what I was addressing. That said, the automobile by its very design and intended use will never be a place to seriously listen to music. Hear it? Yes. Listen to it? Not so much.
I guess all I am saying is that CDs and MP3s are not a quality music-listening experience, not even by a stretch. So I just find it funny that, like Joe said, the music industry threw CDs and MP3s at the consumer in an attempt to make a quick buck, without the foresight to realize that digital media sucks, in more ways than one.
Google "Loudness War" to read about how our music experience is getting worse with every passing year, thanks to the misuse of digital recording technology - an inherently inferior medium to begin with.
7.1.09 @ 6:38p
And thank you.
7.7.09 @ 1:29p
Not only is the loudness war killing the quality of music out there, but the fact that most people listen to their music (legal or not, highly encoded or not) on the stock earbuds that came with their audio player doesn't help. Ever try to play a song with lots of bass at full volume on your iPod? Exactly.
I'm no audiophile, but I sure love to listen to music with earbuds that make music sound almost like it's supposed to (Shure ftw).
8.2.09 @ 9:20a
riaa 3 you 0. RIAA picks up $675K from Tenenbaum in case number 2.