A GENUINE REVOLUTION IS HAPPENING in the way Americans think about music and corporations. Anyone who avoids getting bogged down in the corporate whining, technological minutiae, and legal hairsplitting can see it: peer-to-peer filesharing is a widespread act of civil disobedience, one that could completely transform the music industry. The record companies realize how earthshaking it is for their business model and they’re terrified– their reactions are usually arrogant and self-defeating (e.g. suing 11 year olds) but they at least understand the magnitude of what’s happening. Yet somehow the media doesn’t. Reporters have managed to dig a pit of confusion for themselves and are dragging everyone else into it. Typical news reports — the RIAA sues Kazaa, Verizon sues the RIAA, copyright lawyers debate, teenagers crack encryption schemes– obscure a simple empirical fact: buying a CD just isn’t worth it anymore as a way to get music or as a way to support musicians. Millions of people are realizing it and they’re just walking away from the music industry.
While the big record labels haven’t been able to lock down all sides of the filesharing debate, their PR staff and legal team have still managed to define the terms of discussion. The industry’s lobbyists accuse fans of theft and greed and reporters start with these premises. The RIAA creates news stories by making dire warnings, launching ad campaigns, or suing fans, and then reporters rush out into the field to find a counter-point. They talk to technology pundits who declare that filesharing will magically help the music industry, they talk to privacy groups who oppose the industry crackdown but still shake their finger at actual people who download music, and then they sprinkle in a quote from a sheepish college kid who got Dave Matthews on Kazaa but has some vague misgivings or maybe they talk to a 45-year-old who shares rare bluegrass bootlegs that he can’t find anywhere else. They slap it all together and that’s their story. But where are the 3.5 million Kazaa users that the reporter mentioned in her opening? Are we supposed to believe that they’re all apologetic teenagers and vintage record collectors? The press tries to find “interesting” filesharers and can’t see the massive rebellion against the industry that’s happening in every home with a computer.
Reporters are fumbling because by focusing just on the act of music copying they’re missing the broad shift in the way people value CDs. CD burners didn’t just make it easy to copy CDs, they made people realize that CDs cost almost nothing to make. On the same record store shelf, stacks of 30 cent blank CDs sit next to the record companies’ $16 jewel cases. And if it costs a regular person 30 cents to make a perfect copy on their home computer, imagine how little it costs when you own a factory. Even if you’ve never burned a CD in your life, you feel like an idiot paying $16 for CDs when you know you don’t have to anymore. Furthermore, people know a lot more these days about how the music industry works– at least they understand that not much of the $16 ends up in musician’s hands. We’ve all watched multi-platinum bands on Behind the Music file for bankruptcy before they realize how much of a scam their record contract was.
For decades, record companies were able to get away with extortion of both fans and musicians because neither group had anywhere else to turn. Five record companies monopolize the industry, they buy off radio stations and they fix album prices– no one credible disputes this. So why does anyone expect fans to pay $16 to an industry that exploits musicians when they have a better option?
It comes down to a basic American sense of fairness. People want a fair deal when they buy music and they want to know that they’re supporting artists, not executive salaries. That’s what makes copying music a principled decision, not a selfish one. It’s so simple that for most people it just comes out as “I can’t bring myself to pay $16 if I can copy it.” The industry PR department tries to call it greed but for people with budgets it’s the responsible decision. “I feel bad for the artists, though” is usually the next thing people say, because Americans genuinely care about musicians and want them to get a fair deal too. But in the current system there is no fair deal, and until the major label cartel is gone practical alternatives offering cheap music and real money for musicians are being blocked.
Record executives actually say things like “How can you expect the music industry to exist if people won’t pay for it?” Again, the media skips past the obvious fact that fans don’t really care whether the industry exists or not and when they think about it, they’d probably rather it didn’t. When corporate labels trot out their musicians to defend them, it rings hollow: musicians have always been the loudest critics of the record industry. While many of them are undoubtedly nervous about filesharing– especially the ones that have managed to survive in the current system– you’ll have to do some serious digging to find one that will actually stand up and defend the company that locked them into their shitty contract.
It used to be that people who wanted to radically change the record industry were called naive — they just didn’t understand how the real world worked. But the tables have been turning and now the people that want to get rid of the major labels are the realists and the corporations seem self-delusional. Ultimately, what’s going to kill the record companies is not any filesharing program or court case but rather their own arrogant attitude that assumes a right to exist regardless of whether they serve musicians or fans. The more time the big five spends screeching about the sacredness of intellectual property and the piracy of fans, the further they will undermine each concept in the public’s eye. They’re so sure they’re right that they’ll slam their companies and their corporate philosophies right into the ground before they realize that the public just doesn’t think about music the same way anymore. By the time they file for Chapter 11, a new, corporate-free music business will be flourishing.