Sunday, November 14, 2004

The RIAA... in a Perfect World

I'm about to buy an MP3 player, probably an iPod. I would like to buy CD's and rip them on to the player, but a lot of CD's now come with copy protection, which prevents them from being played on computer and converted to MP3's. I suppose I could buy the tracks at a buck apiece from iTunes, and I probably will for some, but this means that where I might have bought an entire CD, I will now buy perhaps one or two songs from the album. The other option is just to browse other people's music collections and grab MP3's that have already been ripped. This bypasses the problem of limited online selection and protected disks, so I'll probably being doing a fair amount of this.

The absurd thing is that I really don't want to. I would like to pay the artists for their work, but thanks to the weapons-grade stupidity of the recording industry, this is often not an option, not if I simply want to buy the song and transfer it to whatever medium I need. This is called fair use. The law guarantees my right to do this. The recording industry, however, has little interest in the rights of their customers or their artists. Bands who have multi-million selling albums find themselves financing the promotional tours for those albums out of their own pockets, while their labels rob them blind and leave them with nothing afterwards. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were almost bankrupt by 1970, and David Bowie was perpetually broke till he took control of his own finances. Any lip service the recording industry pays to the artists is just that. And when file sharing appeared, instead of embracing it or attempting to protect the rights of the artists, they profoundly offended the technical community by trying to cripple hardward and software which is often used only coincidentally for that purpose. The motto of the retail industry used to be "The customer is always right." When the RIAA went after file sharers with lawyers and lobby groups, we could all smell the rank stench of monopoly--because only monopolies don't have to give a damn what their customers want.

When the recording industry first appeared, sheet music vendors fought to protect their market. They lost. Hollywood is where it is because the west coast was far enough away from Edison, who held the patent on the movie camera, that they could avoid paying royalties. And the movie industry's concern over this issue is a joke--the people who download movies are getting poor quality copies that take hours to download, even with high speed lines. It's not even a factor in sales--the real threat is what it has always been, contraband copies made in Asia and packaged as the real thing. Besides, look at the DVD sales for Star Wars, bought primarily by nerds who know how to get it online. Those who like the movie buy it anyway. And yet we have people in LucasFilms saying that the business will collapse in a couple of years because of file sharing. LucasFilms problems have less to do with that and more to do with the fact that George Lucas won't allow anyone to tell him when one of his plot ideas suck. If he collaborated on his scripts, as he did on the original Star Wars, he might have avoided some of the howlers and wooden characters that so annoyed his fans. Nobody is so good that they can't benefit from criticism.

This is the story of what the recording industry did. I would like to offer an alternative of what they should have done--put the following notice in each of their CD's and DVD's:

This disk has no copy protection whatsoever. You can transfer, copy, rip, and burn it to your heart's content. You can even hand out these copies to other people, with one proviso: insist that if they like it, they should go out and buy their own copy.

Every dollar you spend is a vote. Paying for this is a way of telling the artists you like it and want more. If you like this music, paying for it means that you will get more; more from this artist, and more from similar artists--and maybe even music from artists you will want to hear who are quite different, but otherwise wouldn't have enough support to get started. You may think that recording artists make a lot of money and don't need your support. In fact, there are a lot of expenses that they incur just to make and promote this album, and it takes a lot of sales just to break even. And hey, if they do get filthy rich, it may take a lot of money to persuade them to get back into the studio. Either way, you get more of what you want.

If you don't pay for this, and a lot of people who like it copy it for free, the artists will have to get a day job. They will stop making albums, and probably won't play anywhere more than a day's journey from home. Sucks to be you. The music that you like won't be made anymore. And every time you turn on the radio, you will hear music made by people whose fans are just too damned stupid to know how to copy it.

So, do what you want. But if everything on the radio and at the music store is infantile crap, don't blame us. We warned you.

That's what they should be doing. Of course, they're not. Wall Street has a saying: "A bear can make money, a bull can make money. A pig always gets slaughtered." The RIAA is a pig. They deserve what they're going to get.