Music piracy ahoy!
is downloading killing music?

This scorching riposte was submitted for Sound On Sound’s Sounding Off in Autumn 2002.

Marius Kahan makes an earnest and worthy but mistaken apology for the music industry (Sounding Off, SOS, Nov 2002). Let’s do a little deconstruction.

First up, copyright theft is largely overlooked? I don’t think so. Commercial piracy is the enemy and the Far East is the epicentre, with several recent high-profile, home-grown cases in the USA too. No one doubts this is a real problem: artists, the industry and governments are certainly not overlooking it.

Next, domestic cassette-copying was relatively minor? Again, not so. It was major enough for the industry to launch “Home Taping Is Killing Music” as Marius acknowledges. There is no “Downloading Is Killing Music” campaign of course, but he is confused about the issue. On the one hand he says people accept the limitations of MP3 (he must have particularly bad software) to save a few quid, but on the other the gulf between vinyl and cassette was a deterrent. That just doesn’t make sense.

Nevertheless, this point is an important one. Blinded by digital hype, the industry has flushed millions on DRM, based on this myth. If home taping was a problem, consider this: analogue to digital is trivial. Given time and some decent gear anyone could rip the whole catalogue of PressPlay and MusicNet, from the DRM protected downloads. If you doubt this is true, check out the legitimate vinyl-to-CD transfer specialists. The quality is astonishingly good - digital vulnerability is bogus and a distraction. Of course, analogue to digital piracy is no less reprehensible; so back to square one.

Marius then takes us through some well-worn industry stats: the number of MP3 sites, the number of downloads a day, Napster and so on. If you haven’t seen the other side of this argument you should check out the recent reports by KPMG, Forrester and Gartner. To do them a severe injustice by summary: the industry is making a bad job of the Internet and downloading is actually good for sales. If you still doubt that, consider Janis Ian’s site where she extols the virtues of free downloads – her sales are up.

Industry propaganda soundbites are better than their logic. Take Marius’ point that if 6 out of 10 people go on to buy a download then the other 4 out of 10 are crooks. Wake up! Downloads are the new singles – it’s how people find out about new music now that playlists are closed to innovation. I’m flabbergasted the hit rate is as high as 60%, that’s way above what you’d expect from radio, and the other 40% may well end up trashed in the recycle bin, who knows?

So why are record sales in free-fall? This is a clear case of tunnel vision. Niche marketing always starts well for the industry (glam, punk, disco) and always ends in tears. What we’re seeing today is the fag-end of kiddie pop and the start of celebrity cleavage meltdown. Even what passes for rock comes straight from the identikit punk'n'grunge machine. Chris Cowey was right the other week when he described the material he has to work with on TOTP as "crap". The strange thing is, you won’t find anyone with a decent word to say about the charts, and John Otway just proved beyond doubt that they are utterly worthless (by hyping his single).

It’s facile, and frankly ludicrous to claim that falling sales are due to piracy. When car sales fall, you won’t find executives in front of the Board explaining that people are copying their new Mondeo, unless they want to get rapidly and personally downsized. It’s Ratner’s first rule of business – people just don’t buy stuff that’s no good. And would anyone really choke on their cornflakes if the music industry went belly-up? I don’t think so. There’s a new game in town and it provides a much better explanation about what people are doing with their hard-earned disposable.

In my vast and entirely legal CD collection there’s something odd happening: you won’t have heard of half the CDs I bought this year. They’re from independents I found on the Internet. You won’t find them in the charts, you won’t find them on the radio and you certainly won’t find them in the press releases that are slavishly re-printed by the so-called music press. In fact you’re more likely to find them in Sound On Sound!

I’m not talking about bedroom demos, I’m talking about fully realised artistic work of an incredibly high standard. Not being one to make an outlandish claim without an example, I suggest you check out the Lucky Bishops on Woronzow Records, and if you don’t like them there’s a thousand others. Make that a hundred thousand, world-wide. Of course that’s too many for the music industry to handle, and massive choice means lower profits, but it’s a great time for the music consumer (as the industry calls us).

Marius winds up with a plea to protect the earnings of the artist. Please! He should know this: 9 out of 10 signed artists never make any money and get dropped (Cary Sherman, RIAA, September 2002). He should search online for the iconoclastic articles by Steve Albini, Courtney Love, Prince and Don Henley for the real artist’s angle. He should know that record companies expect the label to artist profits ratio to be 3:1 (MMF Guide, 2001) even after sending 90% of them home with nothing. As an artist himself, of all people, Marius shouldn’t fall for that old line about the poor victims of piracy. This business was always about the record industry, not the artists.

So what happens when the Big Five finally realise they painted themselves into one hell of an embarrassing corner all round? DRM not working, CDs not selling, no real presence on the web and competition spreading like wild fire? Well, frankly, nothing much needs to happen. The entertainment giants who own the Majors don’t need another roomful of loss making furniture – they can sell it. But will we all be, as Marius suggests in his denouement, worse off? Not a bit – we’ve got a hundred thousand new artists to choose from. They might never be stars, and they might never be disgustingly rich, but if that saves a few Rolls Royces from a few swimming pools, I think we’ll all come out of this ahead.

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