Ok this is a bit of a rant, I guess the reading time is approx 10 minutes so if you don’t have the time for the back story & considerations, skip to the image of the chair with no legs & read from there…
This post was motivated by first reading of the RIAA court case where a Boston student was fined US$22,500 per song for file sharing (x 30 songs = US$675,000!?!) and later on reading observations made by someone actually involved in the case as a technical witness. I linked to the latter on twitter and was asked soon after what my thoughts were by a fellow composer. I knew I needed more than 140 characters to reply but ever since I’ve been attempting to clarify what it is that instinctively told me that bankrupting kids is not the best way to deal with music piracy. And permanently disconnecting them from the internet isn’t the way either… But what is?
To rationalise this I think first I need to clarify the ‘crimes’ ie the motivation for them & wider ramificiations. And then consider how we might evolve such that the need for the crime disappears… So as I see it there are two crimes; the lesser crime of downloading pirated music, and the far more serious crime of filesharing i.e. making pirated music available online. Now to a judge I am sure these are considered as seperate, discreet crimes but in reality that is not necessarily the case. If for example some kid was to download the latest U2 album via bit torrent; for the entire time they are downloading it they are also file sharing, as that is how bit torrent works – all data is in a cloud, accessible by all the other people in the cloud who are also all simultaneously downloading. It is possible to disable the upload aspect but by default access is two way. Now this isn’t a defence of either crime, but it is simply to illustrate that with no prior knowledge or intent, a kid downloading an album worth $20 becomes a filesharing pirate, capable of being fined US$675,000!
So why download music? Some would argue that at least some of the time it is a victimless crime, since if a kid does not have the money to buy that U2 album & downloads it, there is essentially no loss to U2. The record label would presumably argue that the kid shouldn’t be listening to the album at all if they can’t afford to buy it, but it also sets a questionable precedent ie will that kid ever decide to start paying for music?
A recent survey which monitored the use of music of young people between the ages of 14-24 revealed some facts that aren’t a surprise but are symptomatic of a change in behaviour:
‘68% of 14- to 24-year-olds listen to music on their computer every day, and the average hard drive contains 8,159 tracks – the equivalent of 17 full days of music. With 61% admitting to downloading music through peer-to-peer networks or torrent trackers, 86% owning up to copying CDs for friends and 75% saying they have sent music by email, Bluetooth, Skype or MSN, young people’s attitude to the law is refreshingly clear.”
Now the image above is cute, but it only tells half the story. Sure downloading an album is not the same as stealing a CD from a record store, but the damage done in downloading pirated music is a magnitude larger in terms of the erosion of value of that music. Let me explain; the value of an album is twofold – there is the creative value (ie how good the songs, music, ideas, production & artwork are) and then there is the market value created through supply & demand. Stealing a CD is not wise, but at least everyone knows that CD has been stolen. Sharing an album online means that an unknown number of people will receive a copy of it without paying for it & it thereby breaks the supply & demand basis of the financial value of the album. But does it also impact on the creative value of the album? Consider each of those kids with 8,000 songs on their hard drives, if I guessed an average album had 15 songs then its like they each have a record collection of over 500 albums. Now I have been a music fan since day one, but by the time I was 24 I doubt I owned 100 or even 50 albums. I was constrained by the financial cost of buying music, but what that meant is that I valued the music I had. I auditioned albums & I only bought the ones that I knew I truly wanted. I suspect nowadays kids don’t even think twice about grabbing a copy of whatever latest album & they audition it from their hard disk. And in the process all incentive to own that album (through paying for it) is lost. So one kid uploads an album to a file sharing site & by that act alone literally thousands of people no longer have any incentive to buy it, ever. This is a very serious ramification of what would otherwise appear a benevolent act.
Now this isn’t exactly a new problem, although its now on a scale unimaginable in the past – maybe some of you are old enough to remember the ‘Home taping is killing music’ campaign? Does this image ring any bells?
I remember at secondary school plenty of people taping albums from friends, in fact some ghetto blasters were designed for this purpose. But guess what? It didnt kill the music industry, in fact it facilitated the kids who actually loved music enough to bother copying it to develop & broaden their taste in music – in effect it faciliated them becoming music fans. The scale was different, it took real time to copy the music & the copies got progressively hissier… but it illustrates that the present situation is evolution at work, and accordingly any equitable solution is only going to be reached through further evolution. And before I move on, go have a quick look at this image – it shows the value of units shipped from 1973 to 2008 for each music format & the year in which they peaked.
One of the solutions proffered by media theorists is that streaming music is the answer to piracy – I see it as one important element of the solution but there are two issues with this approach. Firstly, internet access to facilitate streaming is not omnipresent nor free, so eg listening to streaming audio in my car would be a problem. The second problem is that ‘ the survey found huge enthusiasm for streaming music, such as on Spotify or YouTube, but 78% of respondents said they would not be prepared to pay for a streaming service.’ So how does it generate revenue, which is the whole reason that piracy is a problem ie people getting music for free. While advertising is one possible revenue source, we are then back to commercial radio as a model for streaming & frankly I don’t listen to commercial radio due to the presence of inane ads. As with youtube & myspace, the presence of advertising means I gravitate away from those sites to find equivalent ad-free sites (eg vimeo & facebook/twitter/soundcloud) but its worth noting that of these ‘ad-free’ alternatives two of the four I happily pay a yearly fee to access, as I appreciate the quality of their service. Advertising does not serve the user & I think anyone with a website should think long & hard before integrating advertising, unless it is very, very closely associated with the subject matter of the site.
image credit (help please?)
So whats my solution to piracy?
Firstly to try & help the RIAA rationalise what to do with filesharers I think instead of bankrupting kids they should adopt a more moral, ethical approach by creating some kind of auditing process, whereby if someone is caught filesharing the first step is that they have their music library audited and anything they do not own of the 8,159 tracks is deleted. If a fine is required, make them do community service for the music industry. Also make them aware that this is their first warning and they will be randomnly audited again within the next 12 months, just like someone who does not pay their taxes, and they will continue to be regularly audited until they prove their behaviour has changed.
But thats like putting an ambulance at the bottom of a cliff, I think the main philosophical change has to be that the erosion of value must be reversed. In the history of music formats the LP is still the ultimate in my opinion, because of the ritualistic way which you engage with it. You have to consciously put an LP on to listen to it and in so doing you engage with the artwork. Every format since then (cassette -> CD -> MP3) has been a reduction in experience and this is where I think music delivery as an artform has been a failed experiment (other than in specific cases) where the user loses. Is it a coincidence that music has become a faceless, artless data file and at the same time kids don’t really care about it, place value on it or are prepared to spend money on it?
My solution would be twofold: first there has to be a legitimate cheap (ie free) means of auditioning music. Streaming is one form of it but I also think a form of file sharing of media has to be a part of that too. Music is inherently social and much of the new music I buy I find out about through the recommendations of people I know. In that sense streaming or embedding music works, as blogs & in fact all forms of social media fill a curatorial role; they become the record labels, radio stations & promoters. Word of mouth is the most important form of promotion because it arrives to us in the context of a trusted opinion. In that sense the music industry needs to evolve a means where instead of bankrupting a kid for filesharing, they are given credit for promoting the music to their peers.
I have always been at a total loss as to why music artwork has had such a steady decline. Sure the smaller form of the CD was a reduction from LP artwork but get this: the cost of producing & delivering artwork has steadily declined to the point of being negligble, so why isn’t there a plethora of great music design? I don’t mean the equivalent of a good CD cover & booklet, I mean an evolution of this. Compare the design & production costs of making a double LP gatefold sleeve with that of embeding even a single image for each album track. But I want more than that, as an example I bought a Beck DVD a year or two ago & the disk came with 5.1 mixes of each album track, plus traditional music videos and stunning graphic design elements. Now some musicians might say that their music does not suit overly designed media attached to it, but I ask you this: if your album was going to be released as a double vinyl LP, with an insert for liner notes etc you would find appropriate design & content to fill the available space, so why not with digital? But that is just the beginning, why couldn’t an evolved digital music file playing on my computer also tap into the bands website & trigger syncronised elements to display or interact with? Now some people will say that costs a lot of money, but that doesnt explain why albums bought online dont even include the equivalent of CD artwork? Its a case of #USER_EXPERIENCE #FAIL
Ok I think I’ve arrived at the real moral of this rant – why is the digital music delivery format so much less than every format before it?
And lastly a joke; An RIAA lawyer and an old school record label executive are both drowning. You can only save one. Do you 1) read the newspaper or 2) go to lunch?
(via @DarkPiano, but altered a little)