Shut Up 'n' Play Yer Guitar

Stopping downloads won't fix the music business

If entertainment moguls have always been somewhat notorious for having contempt for the audiences who actually buy their products, music industry leaders took that attitude to a whole new place last week. The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for labels that have overseen a 26 percent decline in shipments of recorded music since 1999, sued 261 individuals for allegedly illegally downloading music from file-sharing services such as Kazaa and Earth Station Five. Among those caught in the RIAA's action: a 12-year-old New York girl (whose legal fees may end up being covered by P2P United, a coalition of file-sharing services).

That's hardly the way to win the hearts and minds of music fans, whether they are among the file swappers on Napster clones or among the aisle shoppers at Best Buy. Indeed, despite claims that illegal downloads are at the heart of the industry's sagging condition, there's reason to believe that the Groksters of the cyberworld have had a beneficial—or simply neutral—effect on music sales. Various polls and studies report that up to 80 percent of downloaders buy as much or more music as before file sharing kicked in, a finding that corresponds perfectly to my own experience. Far from turning me into a free-(down)loading musical pirate, Napster and similar services actually rejuvenated my interest in recorded music.

In its current action, the RIAA, which is claiming damages of thousands of dollars per download, may have the law on its side, but that will matter little in the end. Indeed, it's far from clear whether the group's legal threats will even have any, let alone much, impact on unauthorized file sharing. A spokesman for BigChampagne, a research firm that tracks the use of the peer-to-peer networks that enable file sharing, told the BBC, "There's no mass exodus [from file-sharing services], that's safe to say. Ironically, usage this week and this month is up... The number of people using these file sharing services in the first 10 days of September is up more than 20 percent from the August average."

More important, even if the RIAA is somehow successful in actually stamping out file sharing (which it won't be), that doesn't mean that CD sales will necessarily pick up. "Many of these individuals [who use file-sharing services] have gotten out of the habit of buying CDs," Josh Bernoff, an analyst with Forrester Research, told the Associated Press. "They think CDs are too expensive."

Which points to the actually heartening development of late: the decision by the world's second-largest label, Universal Music Group, to cut its CD prices by about one-third, to around $12.98. If the music industry wants to sell more CDs, lower prices are surely one part of the equation, along with greater ease of purchase, use, and portability. Those latter qualities are being addressed, slowly and grudgingly, by aut horized download services ranging from Apple Itunes to RealOne Rhapsody to MusicNet@AOL 2.1. All of these services have major drawbacks and were too long in coming, but it's a safe bet that their features and functionality will improve over time.

Here's another aspect the music industry—including artists—should consider if it wants to reverse declining CD sales: frequency of output. Between lawsuits against big music fans (the RIAA is targeting folks with more than 1,000 downloads on their hard drives), high prices for CDs (the subject of a price-fixing case that was settled last year), and the incredibly slow pace of fresh material from most recording artists, it's easy to conclude that the musicians and labels alike are far more interested in milking audiences than in entertaining them.

For years now, it's become the norm that years will pass between new albums from acts; labels and artists alike have stretched the product cycle to the point where performers can get away without releasing brand-spanking-new material for years at a time. This is partly a function of extended touring and other factors, but whatever the cause, it can only work to weaken aggregate CD sales. Gone are the days when a chart-topping group such as Led Zeppelin would average an all-new studio release a year during its heyday. Compare that to anti-Napster posterboys Metallica, whose output over the past half-decade has hardly been as generous.

If artists and labels would spend more time making music and less time moaning about free downloads, fans would doubtless spend more on CDs.

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