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Saturday, August 14, 2004

Digital Music

Ever since I got my first dual tape deck radio, I’ve been a music pirate. I’ve recklessly made unauthorized compilations of audio entertainment from my limited collection of cassette tapes and CD’s. I’ve augmented my home-made albums with blatant copies of songs recorded directly off the radio. I’ve used my anthologies at parties, playing them for public consumption – not just for personal use. And yes, I have even made a “mixed tape” or two for a long forgotten girlfriend who may still to this day (although very doubtful) have in her possession music for which she did not pay and does not legally own; thereby, making her an accessory to my crime (and adding “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” to my record since this practice occurred before either of us was 18).

I make this confession now to end my subterfuge and reconcile myself with the rest of civilized society that follows the rules of music listening to the letter. I also confess this in case there are any of my ex’s who still may have those mixed tapes – destroy them NOW before the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) takes you to court! On second though, you may not have that much to worry about. It seems the RIAA was none the wiser to this pirating scam until the Internet came along and digital music was introduced.

My absurd confession demonstrates a key point: the RIAA is a bloated entity that controls nothing but demands everything. Is stealing music wrong: yes. Is it a bigger problem now that the Internet makes it easier: yes. Is it going to go away: no; and I’ll tell you why.

Let’s suppose a band I love – we’ll use Metallica for the example because: 1) I do like them, 2) they were very vocal about their objection to online music “sharing” when the whole Napster issue broke, and 3) their new stuff, in my opinion, is crap – has just released their new song to radio stations. Radio stations – and let’s not forget MTV – play the bejesus out of the song and tell me the record will be available in two weeks. I patiently endure the two weeks until album availability. On the release date, I’m the first in line to buy the record, listen to the album and then queue up again to demand my money back because I’ve been had! The one song on the radio is the ONLY good song on the album. I’m now stuck with a record I don’t like and I’m out seventeen dollars.

I’m sure this has happened to every one of you. You buy a record only to find out the song you bough it for is the only marginally acceptable song on the entire recording. How then does one attain the desired material without the worthless bloat – a question asked of Microsoft time and time again? Remember when cass-singles had their 15 minutes of fame? I own a few cass-singles but how practical are they really? Does anyone still have a tape deck? If you’re not sure, check the place you put your 8-track and record player – you may find it there. I don’t ever remember CD-singles, which is probably a good thing – the concept is as useful as renting a warehouse to store your clothes because your closet is just too small, and just as cost-prohibitive.

What the RIAA, record companies and artists fail to see is that they’re useless, money grubbing pimps and not that talented, respectively. Record stores overseas allow you to bring any record to the counter and spend 5 minutes listening to it, sampling the songs, deciding whether it’s worth the investment. Music consumption desires have not changed; the barriers to the practical reality of the desires have just been lessened.

RIAA sites several studies of CD sales declining as a direct result of Internet piracy. Although groups like Napster (the original) and other file sharing utility suppliers contest this, I tend to side with the RIAA. I don’t care to buy a CD with one or two good songs for the price they demand. I don’t care about cover artwork or the inclusion of lyrics and I certainly don’t care who the artist thanks for their (mediocre) success. I want to get the one or two songs I like and listen to them when and where ever I like – at my house, in my car, on public transportation, at church, day or night, with no limit on how many times I can transfer the medium between my stereo, car radio or walkman. Someone should set up a service where one could download – via the Internet – quality bit-rate music, LEGALLY, for a nominal fee on a per-song basis. I’m glad I thought of that.

What you say – there are already sites that do this? Oh you must mean the proprietary portals like Apple’s iTunes and Musicmatch to name a few. In order to use each I need to get their software and their subscription plan, and in Apples case, their player. Not a valid solution! Like anything else on the Internet – standardization is key to widespread acceptance and mainstream usage.

In my estimation, the RIAA has missed the boat on this. They ignited too much fury over the “you can’t do that” finger pointing and court wrangling with Napster and its users that they failed to be innovative and did not “support and promote [their] members’ creative and financial validity”. Oh they tried to protect the validity – but not promote it. Visit the RIAA website – I can’t seem to find where they offer their standards based download service that solves the piracy problem, allows seamless use of digital music on any player, protects artists’ rights and offers music in the way consumers want it.

Music consumption habits have not changed. People will continue to buy CD’s they just can’t live without. For the more iffy purchases, people will download the single song (back in the day: either borrow the CD from a friend who purchased it to get the required song or record it from the radio). People will continue to rip/burn/create playlists and compilations for their personal and public use (back in the day: mixed tapes). In the long run, artists who provide a respectable product and command a loyal fan base will still make money off record sales, merchandising and concert ticket sales. Digital music allows users to consume music the way they’ve always wanted to: on their terms, getting the music they want without the marketing, artwork, pearl cases and tons of extra fodder cluttering a record with one redeemable song on it.

Additionally, the digital music revolution opens up a world to previously stifled small local bands that can’t get a record contract. The prohibitive marketing costs of producing physical music (CD’s) are removed by digital music. A band can now record, produce and distribute music without a record company and with no use of the RIAA. I can’t help but wonder if all the noise about piracy from the RIAA is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying [that they do] nothing.”

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