STEVE MURPHY: Record companies sue fans because record companies are stupid. That’s all I can think of. They have to be stupid. I could end this article right there, but I suppose I should explain why the RIAA is stupid.
It starts with understanding piracy versus theft. When you steal something, it’s no longer there for someone else to buy. If you steal a Cadbury Creme Egg (the finest candy in existence), that’s one less Cadbury Creme Egg for the store to sell, and therefore less profit for them, because Cadbury Creme Eggs are scarce; it costs money to make one and so there are only so many of them in the world at a time (and not nearly enough if you ask me). Piracy is different, because the goods you’re pirating are non-scarce. You can download a song a thousand times and the person selling it has not lost their ability to sell that song. You are downloading a copy, not the original. That is one primary thing record labels get wrong, they try to frame piracy as theft, and it simply is not.
Now, you might make the argument that piracy is theft because you’re not paying for an album you would have paid for if you hadn’t pirated it. Cute, but untrue. Just because someone downloads something that’s easily available doesn’t mean that if asked to pay for it they’d pony up the cash. I’ve downloaded lots of things for free that I would never, ever have paid for. Jukebox the Ghost, for example, is a band I’d never heard of, and I may or may not have downloaded a few tracks of theirs for free. The RIAA would not have liked that. But then, as it turns out, I absolutely loved those tracks. So I bought the album, and I loved it, too. And I’ll buy their next album this year when it comes out. I’ve even gone to see them live, which hopefully puts money directly into the band’s pocket.
So piracy is really free advertising to a willing audience. If I steal music, and then I become a fan and start buying instead of pirating… isn’t that a good thing for the RIAA? And wait, there’s actual proof. This article from guardian.co.uk describes a study which found that people who pirate music are ten times more likely to buy music than those who do not pirate music. And so the pirates are not the enemy, they are in fact a driving force behind the music business. These are you best customers, RIAA. And you’re suing them for more money than they will ever have. Way to go.
The RIAA is an unnecessary dinosaur. Suing your customers without proof (they use IP addresses to identify pirates, which are as easy to forge as using your neighbor’s WiFi to get online) is just about the dumbest thing you can do. They win because courts are easily convinced that ‘stealing’ music is killing the music industry, despite the fact that the music industry is absolutely fine; it’s the selling-of-physical-discs business that’s in trouble (though not really that much trouble), and it’s their own fault for not adapting to a changing market. Music is now easier than ever to create at home, market online and sell directly without any physical media. They’ve dug this grave for themselves, and with every lawsuit they alienate their future customers more and more. Then those customers join bands, and those bands work outside the record label system. Really they’re just slowly starving themselves, and it’s pathetic to watch.
DAVE TOMAR: Steve is quite right on all points here, most particularly on the Cadbury Crème Egg issue.
As Steve notes, no one has conspired harder to the extinction of the record industry than the record companies themselves. Even before Napster and the lawsuits, the RIAA and the record companies had a serious problem on their hands. But it wasn’t just about changing technology. This was a problem of product. Let’s call it the Mouseketeer Syndrome.
By no coincidence, the beginning of the Napster era, circa 1998, would also mark a sharp transition in the way that music was being sold. The industry turned against its archives, accepted the death of Rock and Roll with Kurt Cobain’s passing and seeded the landscape with potted plants like Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Things like Matchbox 20 and Creed were called rock music. Instead of finding bands in Seattle dive bars and college party scenes, record companies starting picking them off the Disney assembly line and the American Idol waiting room.
No need to get on a critical high horse about the music either. It was simply bad product, the kind that comes with a rapidly-disappearing value. If they didn’t create an archive chart just to accommodate it, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon would still outrank your Taylor Swifts and T. Pain’s on the Billboards. Good luck trying to sell Taylor Swift’s current record in two years.
I’m not saying anybody’s going to go out and create the next commercial and critical Dark Side. But the conscious decision on the part of the record company to forge performers from a mold and to target fickle adolescent consumers means that every year, the industry has to create a new pile of turd and make it look like gold. When the tastes of your target audience change with every menstrual cycle, the marketing overhead is tremendous. Artists who sustain themselves through consistency, long-term viability and artistic output with the capacity to generate residual interest in a year, ten years or 100 years are the kind upon which corporate empires are built
So now let’s talk about piracy. When the record industry noticed an annual decline in sales that appeared concurrent with the upswing in new Peer 2 Peer file trading technology, it had an easy scapegoat for its own shortsightedness. Even if it couldn’t field products that anybody wanted, the industry could surely stifle technological evolution.
The RIAA, through its friendship with other irrelevant old men in the court systems, managed to validate the campaign of lawsuits intended to target ordinary citizens for acts of digital piracy, presuming that if it could no longer manipulate the public into buying its product, it could at least pilfer exorbitant sums of money from said private citizens. In an act of Lex Luthorian villainy, the RIAA moved forward with a campaign of lawsuits targeting junior high school girls, housewives and college students, equating the value of individual pirated files to sums as high as $30,000. Can you imagine? $30k for “Sussudio.” It could cost you half a mil just to hear Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required all the way through. How crappy would that feel?
Amazingly, there are actually some bands that went along with the lawsuits, taking a deeply confrontational stance toward piracy. For instance, nobody cared more than Metallica that its hard work was being pirated and incidently, no rock band made more money in album sales during the 1990s. I also remember Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit being really hung up on the issue as well. Takes balls to suck that badly and still think you can afford to sue the schmucks who actually want to hear you.
Remarkably, between these bands, the RIAA and the record companies, they couldn’t muster the half a brain it would take to realize that suing a demographic which identifies itself as your exact target market is not the best way to do business. Indeed, though many cases remain in litigation and are likely to be settled on the behalf of their corporate plaintiffs, the RIAA has actually abandoned its campaign of lawsuits because they were grossly ineffective at either curbing piracy or stopping the industry’s annual money hemorrhage.
Truly, the money sheared off of private citizens pales in comparison to the money that you can shear off of a good rock band. Last year, when Radiohead released In Rainbows online at the ultra-friendly rate of whatever the hell you feel like paying, it was a big, hard and audible open-palmed slap to the face of a record industry that could really have used a Radiohead album. It was also a moment of inflection. The rules have truly changed and record companies fear change. Here’s to a future without them.