The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) would like you to believe that their recent legal victory over Jammie Thomas in the first RIAA copyright infringement lawsuit to ever go to trial will convince every illegal file sharer now to think twice. But the truth is that file sharing (legal or illegal) will forever be a staple in the digital age.
The funny thing is Thomas was guilty, as is every file sharer. There’s no way to spin it as anything but illegal (unless it’s legally authorized a la Grooveshark or Joost). In a post trial interview, one of the trial’s jurors bluntly gave their reasoning as for the guilty verdict. You can trust the honesty and legitimacy: "We wanted to send a message that you don't do this, that you have been warned."
Will most illegal file sharers really believe that what they’re doing is wrong? Maybe. Probably not, though. And P2P will continue.
If you believe this outdated 2002 statistic, “54% [of teens] ‘see nothing wrong’ with downloading music from the Internet.” There’s an obvious moral disconnect here.
Copyright infringement lawsuits are really hit-and-miss. The RIAA doesn’t find many people or groups willing to cooperate, even in academic circles. Maybe they should finally heed the advice many people and many groups have stressed for a long time. Maybe it's high time they embraced downloading and computer usage.
Lawsuits don’t gain you any sympathy and all those piracy ads get annoying and seem more ridiculous (see the hilarious spoof from The IT Crowd here). There are many options that the industry could turn to instead.
Glamorize the product. Enhanced CDs worked to a point. So did DualDiscs. But the industry didn’t push DVD audio or any other type of high-definition music. It couldn’t and didn’t know how to embrace the digital revolution. It was still stuck in the 2-D world.
Some studies even suggest that illegal file-sharing actually promotes music and convinces people to buy more than they otherwise would have. All of those statistics that claim piracy costs the industry billions are utterly absurd. You can’t prove that someone who illegally downloads an album, from let’s say the Red Hot Chili Peppers, would have bought it otherwise if P2P programs didn’t exist. It doesn’t make sense and those billion dollar losses are just flutter.
Take a clue from airlines that charge next-to-nothing for seats on last-minute flights that aren’t sold out. Any ticket sold up until ten minutes to take-off is guaranteed and paid for. Empty seats are empty seats. But if you can fill those empty seats before take-off, any money you make from them is considered profit.
Look at Radiohead and how the band has forgone the label approach to promoting and releasing its music. In an experiment, the band sold its latest album In Rainbows through its own website for any price the “fan” was willing to pay for it. Millions downloaded it legally through the website, even for free if the fan chose to, and millions more downloaded it illegally though BitTorrent and other P2P avenues as well. That fact alone can give you pause as to the indifference that people have toward file sharing. You could get it for free, but people will still choose to download it through P2P for some reason or another.
The flip side is that Radiohead seems to come out financially ahead in upfront revenue to the tune of possibly $6-10 million. Without the help of a label! Despite the non-help from BitTorrent!
Nine Inch Nails is set to follow this approach too, which wouldn’t be bad at all for the band. I, for one, like the CD format and would always choose the physical form over a digital copy any day. But it’s easy for these bands to use this method since they’re already well-known in rock circles. Getting a record contract is still a big deal for those millions of struggling bands trying to make it in the music business, which is why I don’t think the label system will ever really go away — although indie favorite Arctic Monkeys did manage to buck that trend.
But looking at how a superstar like Madonna is turning her back completely from her longtime label Warner Bros. is kind of a surprise. Signing with another label would have the traditional approach, but signing a contract with the largest concert promoter Live Nation would have been inconceivable even a few years ago.
It makes sense, though, for an artist like Madonna who makes more money through touring than any other peer. Her “Confessions” tour grossed almost $200 million in 2006 alone. Joining forces with the biggest concert promoter would only help her make more money and fill more stadiums.
Total gross shouldn’t automatically indicate popularity when juxtaposed to rising concert ticket prices. Read between the lines of Faith Hill and Tim McGraw’s record-setting “Soul2Soul” tour billed as the highest grossing country tour ever with $141 million over 117 shows. The tour drew 1,673,667 fans as opposed to the previous record holder Garth Brooks whose 1997’s “Sevens” tour grossed $105 million on an attendance estimated at 5.5 million. McGraw’s manager Scott Siman was quick to point out that “Garth definitely wins on attendance, but back then you could sell 10 million records, too.”
It should be noted that Madonna doesn’t sell nearly as many records as she once did, and has had to reinvent her music into the kind of dance sound that Europeans love. On a side note here, I think dance music will be the next big craze after hip-hop hits a more noticeable slide.
The future Rock & Roll Hall of Famer doesn’t need the label system anymore, and Madonna’s name is synonymous with pop music, or just plain music. Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are part of a different story, since the rock genre has declined greatly within the last decade. They both suffer from what Moby called the Pearl Jam effect where the artist’s sales are greatly affected by the artist’s audience. Even if you can’t definitively prove it, it’s probably generally accepted that a majority of Radiohead and NIN’s audiences are predominantly male, which is the gender that is more likely to download music.
You can’t defeat file-sharing completely. In Radiohead’s case, half of those downloading their latest album are paying for it, while the other half isn’t. I think in the end, the band is going down the right road. Who cares if that many people aren’t paying for your music? Do you think those not paying for it would have paid for it anyway? The real fans pay. At the very least, those not paying for it are listening to your music, and even lower than that, they consider themselves enough of a fan to even have the mp3s on their computers. In the purest sense, it’s exposure.
Even in this Web 2.0 world where every major company seems to play catch-up to the start-ups, content should always come first. But who cares about the next great platform if no one cares about what the platform holds? Hell, even Facebook is rumored to be venturing into iTunes territory.
The music industry has a lot to catching up to do in this digital age, and treating their paying customers like thieves is bad business sense. My advice: follow Madonna’s lead and reinvent yourself. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) should take heed too.
One, make better content. Two, make a better experience. If people have a good time in the theater, they’ll watch more movies in cinemas. Sticky floors and cramped seats detract audiences. Likewise, there should be more to the music. Music videos should be innovative. Interviews with the bands should be interesting and plentiful. Photos should be intimate and not generic. Concerts should be enjoyable and fun.
You could go on and on, but the music industry shouldn’t take what Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, and Madonna are doing lightly. It should read more like a warning. Embrace Music 2.0.