I’ve been watching the RIAA sort of crash and burn (or at least trip and smolder) in what, as a consumer, appears to be the kind of blunders that dominate best selling books on business a scant few months after some major corporate upheaval (written in the ‘what-not-to-do’ flavor). It seems to me that the music industry wants to spin this whole decade like it was a war between the evil and smelly peer-to-peer-software wielding computer pirates and the Holy Knights of Musicdom, providers of the Healing Sounds of Peace for the worlds impoverished and diseased orphans, who are being systematically decimated by these wanton and gluttonous ne’er-do-well teenaged demons.
Firstly, this is a war, if you can call it that, between your base human nature: both sides wielding various forms of laziness, stubbornness, indifference and greed. The recording industry wants to squeeze every penny it can out of you, its own artists, random hobos, newborn kittens, gravel and anything else that might contain trace amounts of copper. We as consumers, on the other hand, will do anything to save a buck, as long as it’s really easy and fast.
What makes a person use P2P software, you might ask? I would venture a mixture of greed, laziness and at least a spark of ‘Fuck the Man’ attitude. People don’t want to spend money on something that is, somewhere on the planet, available for free. There is a balance though, between money saved and energy expended; it’s different for each person depending on how much they earn, how lazy they are and how much they love to buck the system. I, for one, wouldn’t slog through a trough of warm cat vomit for a free Brittany Spears album, but throw a couple grand (and the Spears album into a trash compactor) and I might consider it. Actually, give me a full bladder and make the prize a toilet and you’re on, but that’s because I have three cats and trying to get to the bathroom at 2 AM basically means I’m already slogging through cat vomit.
Take John Q. Public, a twenty-something part time line cook who loves obscure punk music, pomade and Pringles. Back in the late 70’s and 80’s, he would have to look long and hard to find that new Angry Samoans album. He may have to drive an hour or more to some small shop that carries the album, or send away and wait weeks for it to show up. It might cost double a regular pop CD. Then again, he’s got a friend (‘Pig Nuts’, that guy with the green Mohawk who wears white tube socks pulled up to his knees and smells like fried chicken) who copied it from a friend, who copied it from a friend who lives near a great little shop. It may not be the highest quality, but instead of two weeks and twenty five bucks, it cost two bucks for the blank tape and he got a free beer while he waited for his friend to copy it.
Then again, there’s Bill Q. Plovits, a mildly retarded, middle aged executive whose success in sales is dwarfed only by his lack of both compassion and scruples. He makes mad-money and had amassed a huge collection of overpriced ‘audiophile’ equipment including an assortment of odd, plastic, ‘quantum-tuner’ disks that ‘boost’ the signal of his CDs (which are encoded digital bits and don’t really need boosting). He’s an early adopter in every new technology and won’t tolerate anything but the best, or at least the most expensive. He, wanting the new Billy Joel greatest hits album, could nab a copy from his neighbor Jim, who has been singing ‘Pressure’ loudly while listening to the disk on a crappy old Walkman while watering his radishes. Even though this CD to CD copy would be identical in every way to the original, Bill wouldn’t have the actual pressed CD, which lasts longer than a burned copy, or the case with the cool liner notes and pictures which he can then add to his large, alphabetized collection.
Face it, P2P is nothing new. It’s as old as humanity itself. The RIAA wants to play this up like there’s a new file sharing technology in P2P applications, but people have been trading mix tapes and bootlegs for as long as recording technology has been around. Beyond that, there is a basic compulsion to try and get a free lunch.
So, what does the great and powerful RIAA do to try and alleviate the problem? Do they look at the most important factors – ease of use and price – and come up with their own, legal alternative that is both easy to use and cheap? Have they made getting legal copies of the work an easier alternative then wading through hundred of crap torrents with mixed naming conventions, bad encoding, spam, viruses and misnamed porn? No! Instead they add DRM to their existing works, making it even more inconvenient for the few people who are still buying CDs! Their great cure is to treat everyone, even their loyal paying customers, like criminals, and then randomly sue middle and low-middle class people for egregious amounts of money and bankrupt their families. I don’t know about you but I do not want to support these fuckers ever again.
This brings me to the artists themselves.
In the past, the labels signed the artist, paid their advertising, marketing, labeling, pressing, concerts and such, so they pretty much owned the artist. They kept the majority of profits, controlled the artist’s music and treated a lot of them like indentured servants. They claimed that all of the associated costs were very high, but of course, just like the MPAA calling wolf and showing record profits, it’s just a way to keep their greedy paws on your money, which your greedy paws want to keep for yourself. Eventually some artists tired of the same-old-crap and realized that they can now press, label, market and sell their own CDs and MP3s online with a (somewhat) small upfront investment. In the old days, very few bands ‘made it’ in the sense of living that Rock-and-Roll lifestyle of bathing in champagne and hooker sweat and having small children from Guatemala running on a treadmill to power your ceiling fans. This hasn’t changed. I would assume that most artists would be happy making a decent living wage by just gigging and selling albums. With YouTube, Kinkos and a lot of small printing shops and other specialty stores, as well as some great online services, a hard working band never has to sell their soul to the Corporations again. The thing is that to keep the music, and profits, in the band’s hands, someone has to be responsible for that marketing, and sending out the CDs, and updating the web page, and editing the videos. I know, from personal experience, that the lazy, funky-couch dwelling, drug addled stereotype is being replaced. Musicians have to be multi-taskers who work hard, know more about technology and marketing and are driven to change the old business model.
If the music industry doesn’t pull its collective head out of its loose, foul-smelling collective ass, then the real threat to the RIAA’s money isn’t going to come from pirates, it’s going to come from tech savvy, hungry, talented bands who have made the whole industry obsolete.