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Do It Illegally!


There is a new Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)-awareness army sporting brightly colored matching t-shirts across campus and asking students to “Do It Legally.” I can relate to these girls – they’re in a public relations class, just as I was not so long ago, and they were given a client and an assignment which they’ve taken on enthusiastically and dutifully: to work with the University of Georgia’s Committee on Digital Media Downloading to “inform UGA students that illegal downloading is an unacceptable behavior and to promote legal downloading alternatives.” Even though I had a bit of a conniption reading the words “illegal downloading” (shudder), I couldn’t turn down an invitation to their panel discussion on media downloading featuring local music industry types, students, musicians, University officials and telecomm professors all weighing in on the controversial debate.

Problem is – there was no debate, and there were no answers. To give you an idea of the limited scope of the discussion, here’s the bulleted synopsis as posted on the Do It Legally blog (www.uga.edu/doitlegally):

  1. UGA tries to protect its students from the RIAA’s lawsuits.
  2. The RIAA is flawed in its handling of illegal downloading, but that doesn’t change anything.
  3. The RIAA sees college students as influential.

Kudos to the University for number one, and I think number three is obvious enough, but it’s number two that really hurts.

What the group is trying to say is basically, “Hey, wrong or right, the RIAA can and will sue you for downloading free music – so ‘do it legally.'” I am all about awareness – I don’t want kids paying a cent to the RIAA either – but why is the impetus on the consumer to bend to the status quo? What if we took this stance with more pressing social issues? If a company is enforcing racist or prejudiced policies, we don’t tell the victims, “Hey, it’s wrong, but that’s how it is – so deal with it.”

OK, I understand that’s an inflated metaphor and kids downloading Shakira tunes are hardly victims, but my point is that the music industry’s current business model is failing atrociously. Sales are declining, labels are crumbling, and in the midst of the tumult, tech-savvy music fans are getting sued for millions in some far-fetched fear-mongering attempt to reel in control. It’s absolute chaos. What we should be saying – as consumers, as activists, as music fans, as musicians – is: “The music industry in general is flawed in its handling of music distribution – and that changes everything.”

First, let’s be frank about what the RIAA’s role actually is. It’s operating under the guise of being this benevolent artists’ union, out to protect the musicians’ best interests when in fact, it does not represent artists – it represents labels. Joe Guitarist isn’t protected or affiliated with the organization, and neither is any other independent, unsigned artist. Heck, even the artists who are signed to RIAA-affiliated labels aren’t getting much support. As of press time, not one cent of the estimated $400 million the RIAA has received in its lawsuit settlements has been paid to the artists… but I digress.

I will admit that digital distribution (I refuse to call it “illegal downloading” because there are an infinite number of blurred fair use practices that get caught in the mix that I feel ought to be protected consumer behaviors – despite what the RIAA’s lawyers say) has had a detrimental effect on the current business model, but I am not blaming the consumers. This isn’t your fault, 60 million peer-to-peer users. This is the nature of advancing technology and its effect on our capitalist market. The current decline of the music industry is simply and unequivocally an issue of scarcity – not piracy.

We are rapidly approaching an era where trying to maintain control over the distribution of ideas and intellectual property is increasingly futile and even detrimental. Back when a song had to go through all kinds of recording and pressing rigmarole to be heard by the masses, you could sell it as product because the song itself existed as a physical entity – the record, the cassette, the CD was relatively scarce. Today, once a song is recorded, it exists as an intangible digital entity that cannot be captured or regulated. We now have the technology to duplicate these songs indefinitely on our home computers and share them freely across the internet. Any flimsy laws or technological restrictions that the music industry moguls have tried to impose to restrict this duplication and distribution is, in effect, a last ditch effort to create a false sense of scarcity. Should they have foreseen this sea change and figured out a way to market distribution before the technology became widespread? Probably. But the dinosaurs were stubborn, and now we need to accept that this anti-consumer crusade is not only too little too late, it’s a scapegoat for the industry’s shortcomings.

I understand that under modern law a copyright holder has, by definition, the right to control the distribution of his/her intellectual property. The problem is, given modern technology and the digital manifestation of a song, it is flat out unrealistic to try to maintain this control. Cutting-edge artists and labels (Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails, etc.) have already accepted this and have been exploring innovative ways to distribute music freely and then seek profits elsewhere. This is is where the long-term solution lies.

Making big bucks off selling records, and I’m talking about record labels more than the artists themselves, is a thing of the past. Sorry. I know it was fun while it lasted. I mean it made sense – the art and joy of music has been a part of the human consciousness for centuries, and in the last 100 years we found a way to physicalize and monetize the song. It’s no surprise it sold big! But that era is ending, and if musicians want to find a way to sustain a living through their music, we’re going to have to work together to find some creative and innovative solutions.

The short-term model is of course the pay per download sites, and for now a certain percentage of music fans have been drawn to these services. I think the appeal is short-term only because the peer-to-peer market still has its flaws. With a pay per download site you are assured that you are downloading what you ask for, whereas the free sites are often plagued with viruses, unpredictable sound quality, and mislabeled tracks. More importantly, pay per download sites appeal to the benevolent music fan because we like to feel that we’re financially supporting the artists we love. In reality, the profits artists make from these downloads are infinitesimally small, but you are supporting the record labels that support the bands, so indirectly this theory is true.

However, looking ahead, these record labels are not going to exist as we know them today. Artists will find more money in producing and distributing independently, as current trends have shown, and the free sites will continue to improve as well. So the question now is how can we create a model where file sharing remains legal but artists get paid and get credit for their work? The Electronic Frontier Foundation has some compelling proposals for starters (eff.org), but I am curious what our local music community can suggest.

We can look to the movie industry for help as well. Songs aren’t the only media being shared freely online – and yet the film industry cashed in with record high revenue in 2007! Films cost millions more to make than records, with hundreds of people involved, and yet they have found a means to profit despite all the file sharing. We can also look back to move forward – consider a modern take on the patronage model that funded classical artists before the advent of rock and roll. Honestly, music may not be the big money-maker it was in the past 100 years, but historically musicians weren’t the high rollers anyway.

Maybe my conclusions are just as passive as the Do It Legally campaign – but I look to the industry to change its behavior, not the consumer. Let’s embrace “piracy” and find a new way for our beloved artists to thrive. Because the one thing that will always remain scarce is talent, and we can work together to find a way to reward artists for their contributions without criminalizing the music fan.

Liner Notes is Flagpole‘s music opinion column.

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