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Music and Its Growing Pains MAG
A woman screams – a shrill cry that cuts through the night. A pale figure lies on the ground, crimson red spreading around it. Three beeps on a cell phone and frantic, hysterical crying to a voice on the other end of the line.
Hours pass, the woman rocking back and forth in fear. Sirens approach, and police filter onto the scene. One officer touches the woman gently and asks what happened.
“What happened? Hours ago I found a dead body and it takes you how long to get here!?” she rants.
“I'm sorry, ma'am, but there was an illegal Britney Spears download in progress that we had to take care of.”
This scene may be an exaggeration, but it's no more ridiculous than the claims being made by the recording industry. The record labels act as though online downloading is a crime equivalent to murder.
There is no doubt that music holds a revered position in society, today and throughout history, when ancient people used songs to preserve the history of their civilization or to recount traditional parables. In the late 1870s, however, music gained the ability to spread in a new format – recordings. With the invention of the phonograph, the capacity to record music created a new industry. The audience was no longer limited by the distance a performer could travel. Music could now reach a national, or even international, stage. Fast forward to the 1900s, when artists began signing contracts with record labels, which promised to produce and distribute a predetermined number of albums. Recording companies made sure that stores across the nation stocked the albums, and artists traveled the world on elaborate and often grueling tours to promote their music.
The introduction of the Internet changed things even more. People all over the world became linked by an invisible data stream where files could be uploaded and downloaded. It was only a matter of time before digitized music joined the river of shared content. Napster was one of the first major services to provide millions of songs to just as many users, and with it came an outcry from the record labels. They claimed that music-sharing was ruining the industry they had created.
It's my understanding that the modern recording industry is the brainchild of a few powerful businessmen at the top. Now this structure is being reformed at a speed previously unimaginable, and the poor, besotted executives who had been raking in cash by the handful had little warning. They cried foul without hesitation. Lawsuit after lawsuit followed, with the record labels exaggerating – and continuing to exaggerate – the gravity of the situation.
To understand this conflict, one must understand some of the inner workings of the recording industry. Artists sign a contract with a label, and a predetermined number of albums are manufactured, financed by the label. This much is a given, but how far does the label's generosity really go? I'm told that artists must pay back every cent of expenses, with interest, that the label invested in the album. When the performers receive less than a dollar per album sold, this can prove quite a feat. So when labels say that they and the artists lose money because of illegal downloading, they actually mean they lose money. By claiming that the artists are not getting paid, record labels appeal to the fans who love these artists and their music.
The Recording Industry Association of America and the National Academy of Recording Arts & Science try to appeal to the public by invoking sympathy for multiple parties. This approach has proved largely successful, but their major claims are mostly false. Linda Aksomitis, author of Downloading Music, says the recording industry bemoans “the little mom-and-pop stores being shoved out of business; yet no one worked harder to shove them out than [their] own industry, which greeted every new mega-music store with glee, and offered steep discounts to Target, Wal-Mart, et al, for stocking their CDs.”
Though the recording industry may say it cares deeply for independently owned music stores, its actions do not support that claim. By giving discounts to the chain stores, the industry is giving them a competitive edge, allowing them to sell the albums at lower prices. Who would pay $15 for an album at a small record shop when you can get it for $10 at Walmart while grocery shopping? And to divert the blame for the failure of independent stores away from itself, the recording industry blames online downloading for the problem. Now, that's not to say that mom-and-pop stores are filing for bankruptcy solely because of the record labels – the troubled economy certainly contributes – but the industry's hypocrisy adds to it.
When record labels claim that illegal downloading robs artists – and by extension, the label itself – they do not take into account the Internet's benefits of increased popularity for music through word of mouth. Few cash-strapped students will pay for an entire album from an unknown artist. But when a student browses the Internet, free music provides an opportunity to become acquainted with new artists. Thus, this student will be more inclined to purchase music, concert ticket, and merchandise. Additionally, revenue from merchandise contributes far more to the artist than album sales, so though the music industry tells fans to support artists by buying their albums, it's actually far more helpful to buy a T-shirt.
And then there's the impact of Facebook and Myspace. “Thanks to the emergence of Myspace.com and other social networking sites, the Web is becoming a giant audition stage where millions of fans lay in wait,” says Aksomitis. With the online world such a viable stage for showcasing talent, it seems a shame that the labels stand so stalwartly against the digitalization of music. According to New Media Age Online, digital albums “now account for 17.5% of all albums sold.”
The Internet holds endless potential for the distribution of music, as iTunes has proved time and time again. People want to know the artist behind the music. Living in a world with an intricate, global social atmosphere, we have grown discontented with only listening to songs or hearing about concerts in distant cities. iTunes has begun providing bonus content to those who purchase an entire album, but this could go even further. Instead of a couple songs and a digital booklet, why not offer exclusive interviews, or show live footage or early versions of a song? If iTunes, Amazon, and other digital music providers offered more rewards for buying a full album, music listeners would eagerly respond.
An experiment conducted by Harvard Business School professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf of the University of North Carolina produced interesting findings. Their counterintuitive findings indicated that music piracy did not hurt CD sales; in fact, it helped them. Sean Silverthorne, a journalist with the Harvard Business School's “Working Knowledge,” explains that the research monitored “1.75 million downloads over 17 weeks in 2002, scouring through server logs from OpenNap (an open-source Napster server), and comparing the sales of almost 700 albums as reported by Nielsen SoundScan.” Their findings stated that there is little to no correlation between downloading and CD sales. “The number of illegal music downloads continued to increase … but so did music sales,” reports Silverthorne. This phenomenon can be explained by what the research calls “samplers” and “money-poor but time-rich” consumers, like college students. Samplers are people who download a song or two in order to determine if they like an artist's work, then purchase the full album. Billboard's Weekly Nation Music Sales Report also indicates that both regular and digital album sales increased from 2009 to 2010. So, despite the growth of online file sharing, music sales are not suffering.
However, all this is not to say that file sharing is not a problem; it's just not as big a problem as the record labels would have us believe. All financial arguments aside, downloading copyrighted music online is still theft, and it is illegal. But this does not justify the record labels' extreme measures to prevent downloading, which tie up law enforcement resources and create multi-billion dollar lawsuits. I believe online downloading has not destroyed the music industry – it has changed it for the better. Without the innovation of digital media, services like iTunes that provide unsigned artists a chance to distribute their music to audiences at a relatively small price, would not exist. With the exponential growth of digital single-track sales, the music industry continues to thrive, and the possibilities of complete album purchases are boundless. The music industry, indeed, has a promising future.