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Much of the debate online about the record industry has devolved – with quite a lot of help from the misguided message of the US trade group, the RIAA – into a debate about piracy. It winds up being something dumb, like, “Piracy is evil!” “No, piracy is great!” Wow, this should be a really insightful discussion – I can’t wait!

Piracy is, pure and simple, “loss prevention.” People often laugh off the comparison between piracy and things like shoplifting. But I think that comparison isn’t made enough – because if it were made, and made fairly, the record industry might remember what it’s business actually is. It’s business is selling something. If that becomes secondary to preventing theft, they cease to be a real business. Whether you’re scared of piracy or think it’s harmless, you ought to be able to agree. This ignorance is a disease that has threatened at times to infect music software creators, too – and I think the same issues apply.

The counter-argument even from some RIAA critics is that record sales don’t matter to musicians, or that sales of recordings is doomed. Those are interesting arguments. They just don’t have actual facts to back them up. With musicians selling music direct and working out new means of distribution with labels, the former is silly. Sure, not all musicians rely on music sales – some of us rely on things like teaching guitar lessons or (ahem) writing about music technology. But many other artists do think about selling music. Digital tech means that for bands like Sound Tribe Sector 9, they can even tie this to lucrative live performance. (STS9 now earns lots of revenue by selling downloads of live performances to concertgoers. I’m sure others could follow; I just happen to talk to the STS9 guys and know this.)  And most importantly, with explosive growth in mobile music, online music downloads, streaming music, Internet radio, terrestrial digital radio, music communities, the recording as a business is here to stay, whether you like it or not.

Not that you’d know any of this listening to the RIAA, because the only issue they want to talk about is piracy – not the actual sales one would associate with an “industry.” So why is no one calling foul – not only because the RIAA pursues abusive legal intimidation, but because they seem unable to act in their own self interest as an industry? Isn’t that a little … odd?

The problem is, music recording is often treated differently from other businesses; we view it in a vacuum, without precedent or comparison.

Have a quick look at the RIAA’s website:

Today, on December 16, 2008, the top headline is about an anti-piracy bill. The top blurb is about parents and teachers on digital downloading. Then we have some sales statistics, news on anti-piracy items, a whole section on piracy identification, piracy and parents, some links in the nav bar on piracy … you get the message. In fact, the only thing that would tell you that this is the Recording Industry Association of America and not the Association of Intellectual Property Lobbyists and Lawyers is some proud stats on “gold and platinum records.”

So, the only thing that would make me want to go into the record business is info on their top-selling records. Except, of course, that’s equally ironic and backwards-looking. We know that generally the new world market for music is less interested in explosive singles – there’s more selection, more variety in genres, more different kinds of people listening. The RIAA’s homepage is currently celebrating “50 Years of Gold Records.” That looks back to an era when American music tastes didn’t cross over between white and black artists. Some of those albums were wonderful, but with deep racial divides and uniform tastes, it was hardly a golden age. In 2008, the US has elected an African-American President who listens to music on his iPod. But never mind business growth and business potential: that wouldn’t fit into the RIAA’s victimization of itself. If the RIAA can portray itself as a failing industry, they have extra ammunition in what seems to be their one and only priority: fighting online piracy. If actual sales go down the tubes in the process, so be it. (In fairness, sometimes the RIAA does seem to be seriously deluded in their arbitrary nostalgia. Exhibit A: The CD: A Better Value Than Ever is one of their key statistics papers. Where’s “Online: A Massive New Market”?)

To see just how absurd this is, let’s compare another industry that’s having tough times – the National Retail Federation. They’re certainly in an unenviable place, with consumer confidence in the US at historic lows. And retailers get hit hard by theft – harder, you might argue, than the music industry. If you own a store, you get hit by shoplifting; it’s a fact of life. That’s real, material goods walking out the door, goods the retailer can’t replace, in an industry known for its razor-thin margins. Look at retail theft, and you might be glad to be in the record industry, selling online goods that won’t be irrevocably damaged by digital theft and that can have substantial profit margins and loyal, passionate fans. Oh, by the way: music has been historically more recession-proof than a lot of segments of retail.

If the NRF behaved like the RIAA, we’d see nothing but anti-shoplifting info. We’d see educational flyers warning parents about the dangers of their kids stealing candy bars, extensive statistics on loss, new lobbying for tough, one-strike-you’re-out prison sentences, and so on. Of course, that isn’t the priority of the site. The NRF lobbies, too, but on a range of issues. They cover “loss prevention” – they’d be nuts not to – but among other issues, like merchandising, logistics, finance, information technology, marketing. They have events that work on everything from supply chain to credit. Gee, it’s almost like they’re running a real industry. I’m not saying I agree with the positions of retailers. I’m saying they seem to be acting in their own self-interest, which is something you can usually take for granted with a business.

You can’t fault people who sell stuff from wanting to prevent you from stealing stuff. But you can fault them if it’s the only thing they do, to the point that they forget to sell, then blame shoppers who don’t steal for not buying. And that’s just talking retailers who sell actual, physical goods rather than ephemeral online files. Photo (CC) John Holcomb.

Focusing entirely on loss prevention is something retailers have sometimes done, with disastrous consequences. Tell your staff to stop shoplifting and forget to tell them to concentrate on helping customers buy stuff, and watch what happens. Lock your merchandise behind glass cases and watch what happens. You’ll wind up with safe merchandise: safe, unsold merchandise. The lessons of digital music and DRM clearly point to the same phenomenon.

You can apply the same communications test to other busines
ses. The American Wind Energy Association, for instance, talks about what’s great about wind energy. They talk about jobs and societal benefits. They lobby, too, to keep wind a priority. Now, wind energy has nothing to do with music, but that’s precisely the point, too. Why can’t you substitute the word “music” in the above sentences? Regardless of the nature of the business, this is what a business trade group ought to be doing.

In fact, even other music advocacy groups seem to get it when the RIAA doesn’t. Performing rights groups BMI and ASCAP have certainly lobbied against piracy, but it hasn’t stopped them from doing anything else. Check out the ASCAP and BMI websites and you’ll see musicians, seminars on music business, actual music. What a novel concept.

There’s a lot of damage to undo, and it has nothing to do with the debate on piracy. Check out reader comments here, blog entries around the Web, and popular press outlets. The narrative about music: music purchasing is dead. Music online has no value. The music industry is on the verge of collapse.

Guess where these narratives came from? You’ve got it: direct from the RIAA. People passed over the scare tactics the RIAA tried to peddle on piracy, and bought into their scare tactics on the industry as a whole. The RIAA has done massive, long-term damage to the image of music as a business. They’ve devalued the work that we as musicians do. They’ve squandered massive business opportunities online, and made an uphill battle for the people trying to take advantage of those opportunities independently.

It’s sad to lose stores like Toronto’s Sam the Record Man. But it would be even more tragic to miss out on new music opportunities, just because we buy into the RIAA’s “failing industry” argument. Photo (CC) Steph/Rabblefish.

I respect people who want culture to be free and shared. Music as a business should never be the only view of music, because it’s a cultural activity, with deep, personal, emotional value that can never be quantified. But for the same reason, I value any discussion that helps protect a business that promotes that cultural activity. We live in a world with grocery bills; in the US, we pay for health insurance. Damaging the business is dangerous to musical activity, period. The RIAA and its members are certainly entitled to have opinions about policy and law as they relate to piracy. But when those groups focus on those issues in the exclusion of all else, they do damage to the industry as a whole – including musicians who have nothing to do with them or their member labels. So it’s time to really start focusing on these other, challenging issues. Each time someone says that business is doomed, even if they’re doing so in the context of being critical of the RIAA, they’re unknowingly let the RIAA set the agenda for discussion. And I think it’s long past time for a more productive agenda.

I look forward to the RIAA’s one valuable commodity: its yearly sales figures. They’ve shown massive growth in downloaded and streamed digital formats that suggest that all of this is simply a transition from one format to another. (Furthering that argument, they even show growth in odd places, like vinyl records last year!) It’s purely a business issue. But it’s about time “industry” and “business” got mentioned together again. Stay tuned.

Discuss. (I’ve said enough.)

  • I'm sitting this inbetween shuffling through boxes and boxes of cassette tapes I have dating back as far as the 70's. If I were to make a quick estimate I'd say I've got atleast 5000 of them and maybe 25% of them are official releases from labels. The other 75% range from TDK to Maxell to Sony, etc. A greater majority of those without labels (I never liked labeling). Of those a good percentage of them cassette versions of my vinyl collection (a whole other story). The rest however are 'illegal' mixtapes and high-speed dubs from my friends collections. We used to trade tapes quite often. Usually pretty rare stuff that one or the other had and weren't likely to find again on vinyl. The point is I've got tons of music that isn't in an official label packaging. Again going back to the 70's. So ummmm… is the RIAA going to come after me for that or just wait until I start digitizing this stuff.



    I'm actually quite serious about this though. This is a culture that wasn't born because of the internet. The cassette at the time though a distributed media was also a second generation media. The MP3 is also a second generation media. Big difference between the tape and the MP3 is that the tape is actually better quality!! Because the labels were selling Cassetes didn't mean they went after TDK for selling blanks. Anything that you recorded on to a blank was automatically of lesser quality.

    Labels need to stop thinking of the MP3 as a final product. Its a second generation lossy promotional tool. If they stopped selling them all together and instead made digital sales of lossless material they'd start noticing something. Just like how people are now shelling out bucks for Blue Ray Disks and Downloads they could be shelling out for Lossless music, if the RIAA created the culture for it rather than creating a culture around the idea of piracy.

    Wayyyyyyy too long but my $0.02

  • contakt

    Thanks for these articles I am loving them.

    As a former indie label VP, I have always despised the RIAA and typically most of the major label execs who unfortunately dictate most of the music industry's direction.

    This is one of the best written articles demonstrating the utter pointlessness of the RIAA. If you look further, you will find so many things in the music industry and so many a$$backwards practives that would never fly in any other industry.

    Should music be sold or free? Ugh, I loathe that argument. I do suspect, that MOST people who think it should be free have probably never tried to sustain themselves off it, or have the ability to sell out a show based on marketing dollars someone else spent years ago.

    Paintings are sold, books are sold, there is no reason that music should be any different. Some paintings, books, or poems are given away, that's great too. In my opinion, if someone wants to sell their music, you should buy it if you want it (not steal it because you can). If they choose to give it away for free, that's great too, have it for free.

  • If you can bear to read it, here's an old post of mine in which I pretend to know something about different ways of making money (or not) from music. I'm obviously winging it…

    "I have an amateurish and sporadically updated blog, Catching The Waves, in which I enthuse about netlabel releases that have tickled my fancy. I became interested in netlabel music because it allowed me to hear styles of music that I was curious about but couldn't afford to buy. It allowed me to explore genres that were new to me: chiptune, ambient, minimal, IDM, dub, electronica, breakbeat, experimental and so on. Now that I've heard some of those genres I am far more likely to buy songs/albums in those genres. The other day I bought a song from Jonathan Coulton, an artist I would not have heard of but for his online presence and habit of giving away free music. Similarly, I downloaded an album by Brad Sucks (Brad Turcotte) and liked it so much that I intend to buy his new album. Those are two artists who are going to get my money who would not have done so otherwise.

    I don't make any money from my blog. In fact, it costs me money, but it's my way of saying thank you to people who have given away their music: the more publicity they receive, the better. I always link to the netlabel and the artist's own website, and I encourage visitors to my blog to make a donation or pay for some of the artists' other fare, whether that be albums, merchandise or concert tickets. Many netlabel musicians give away their music for no other reason than because they want to, though many use it as a marketing tool, building up a fan base that hopefully will “tip” them for their current music and/or pay for future releases. It's up to them. Either way, these people have made albums that might not otherwise have seen the light of day. The quality may vary greatly but no one is forced to listen.

    It's not just one-way traffic. Netlabels spread the music; a website like Eventful allows music fans to “demand” that their favourite bands visit them. If a nascent band learn that 100 people in Nowheresville want to see them then they can stage a concert there, with a very good chance of a great reception and merchandise and record sales.

    I'm not proposing an either/or music world. All I'm saying is that the netlabel/own-website scene can complement the existing music industry paradigm, allowing people to hear music without hindrance from financial constraints or perceived wisdom. Perhaps a site like Magnatune is a good compromise, allowing people to stream artists' music as much as they want to and, if they like it enough, to pay for a DRM-free mp3? There's also Jamendo, which offers over 14,000 albums of Creative Commons music, and allows listeners to donate to artists who might otherwise struggle to see any payment for their music.

    Piracy is a bad thing. I am fully in favour of paying for music. If I want U2's latest record then I'll hand over the cash for it: I don't want to rip off musicians or companies. But the internet, whether in the form of netlabels or artists' own websites, allied with cheap software, now allows anyone to attempt to make a living as a musician. Most music, like most art, isn't very good. But the “long tail” theory of the internet allows people to find the music that chimes with their taste. Compose an opera for xylophone and noseflute and no record company will give you the time of day – but the internet allows the xylophone and noseflute lovers of the world to search for their favourite genre and discover your opera, which you've recorded and released under your own steam. Who on earth is to say what's good music and what isn't? The record companies?

    Admittedly, everything is up in the air; it's difficult to predict what will happen to the music industry in the next few years. If I thought that netlabels were harming music and musicians then I would close my blog. But I don't think that netlabels and “free” music will hurt the Madonnas of this world. The large record companies will continue to dominate the charts and make money from sales, merchandising and tours. But those artists who sell “only” 1,000 albums, and can't continue because their record company has dropped them, might now be able to carry on because, thanks to the methods I've mentioned, they too can make money from sales, merchandising and tours. It depends what you want from your music-making. There might be fewer multi-millionaire musicians in the future but there may be more people who are able to make a living as full-time musicians. And there will be more choice for the listener. That's a good thing, surely?"

    Told you I was winging it. But I did splash the cash for Brad's new album. So free music can make money after all. 🙂

  • MonksDream

    Primus Luta – I agree with you about the sharing culture pre-dating the Internet. And you're right about MP3 being second-generation. However MP3s, despite that, suffer way less from generation loss than cassettes. Thus they can be distributed more widely.

    And, as I remember it from the 70's the RIAA did try to go after TDK and the other for selling blanks. The only thing that stopped them was a public that still had a concept of "fair use" and the lack of anti-copying technology that would work.

  • Josh

    Very well worded and thought out article, and solidifies the way I think alot of people have been thinking of the music industry and the RIAA: it's a dead business model that they are protecting, and they've even lost sight of the business model part of it…

    "(Furthering that argument, they even show growth in odd places, like vinyl records last year!)"

    This actually makes perfect sense to me: vinyl is seeing a big resurgence because mixing tools are now at the cost level that makes it at least feasible for young people at home (or for thier parents to buy) – 2 turntables, a mixer, and some disposable income on records is all you need to be a "dj", and I've seen alot of people go that route to get their hands dirty with. Couple that with how big djs are right now, and record sales should be seeing some of their biggest numbers in a while.

  • contakt


    I think vinyl sales are up because of a different experience. Those who are paying for music want a unique experience and/or don't enjoy the sound quality of vinyl (yes, I know sound quality of vinyl is bad, but people enjoy analogue-ness).

    My rational for this thought would be that Turntables – specifically the industry standard Technics 1200s are pretty much the same exact price they have been for the last 20 years. $400-500. DJ Mixers can still be had or cheap, but middle and high-end mixers are still at the same price they have been for the last 10 years too – $400-600.

    Most vinyl sales growth has actually been in rock and reissues. Unfortunately, hip-hop and dance have taken SERIOUS hits in the last 10 years. By serious I mean a good selling indie 12" in the late 90's would be 30,000-50,000 copies, now a good selling 12" is 3,000-5,000 copies. Pretty depressing right? I think a lot of that is related to Serato and Traktor.

    To me though, I think people still want to buy music, as evidenced by rock vinyl sales. The major label way is done now though. You can't just put together a pop star w/ 2 good songs, a great marketing budget and have them do millions. This year Atmosphere debuted at #4, and Jessica Simpson debuted at #5 – to me that was a huge victory for indies and talented artists.

  • contakt

    sorry, quick edit – I mean "don't enjoy the sound quality of MP3"

  • This article did not help me create ANY digital music. 🙁

  • @tendo: I can fix that for you.

    Re-read, but this time sing the article.

    Record with an audio editor. Add AutoTune.

    Problem solved!

    (got some other more creation-focused stuff in the hopper, so, uh, patience?)

  • Nice article.

    This is something we see happening to the computer games industry too. More and more, new releases by big publishers are console-only, with halfhearted ports done a few months later.

    Too few configuration options despite the wide range of hardware it's supposed to run on (Rainbow Six Vegas); poorly adapted controls (Dead Space); clumsy UIs designed for TV (Oblivion)…

    Piracy is the rationale. Not having a PC version is a pretty effective way to prevent zero-day cracks. And thus legitimate buyers are punished and discouraged from their purchases, just as with DRM.

  • @foosnark: well, right — and by the same token, PC gaming has gone from being supposedly dead to having a huge year. No accident, I suspect, that the big breakthroughs this year came from Valve/Steam and Stardock, who each adopted a sensible approach to copy protection and customer relations. Meanwhile, EA got the dubious honor of making the most pirated game of all time (Spore) when the gaming community rebelled against perceived problems with its copy protection scheme.

    To me, the really important thing about Valve and Stardock is that they focused on building those customer relationships and loyalty, and giving them a better distribution method. You actually benefit from paying for their games *instead of* pirating them – and while that doesn't stop piracy dead, I suspect it hasn't been lost on their many loyal customers.

    In fact, I'd love to see music and music software distributed through something like Steam. But that's a story for another article.

  • Downpressor

    I almost didnt read this post, figured it would be nothing but another anti-RIAA whingefest, but after all I'm glad I did. Setting the agenda is an angle that should have been painfully obvious, but this is the first time I'm hearing about it.

    If the over reaching question is what can we as small labels (for lack of a better word for individuals/groups with an interest in selling the fruits of our musical labors) do to reset the agenda, it looks to me like we have a Catch 22. Looking at the history of how tradespeople express common interests, it seems that guilds or trade groups are always the most effective tool. Problem is that guilds always end up acting in the interest of the guild itself rather than the interest of its membership.

    Primus Luta, MonksDream,

    Dont either of you remember "Home Taping Is Killing Music"? How about blank media taxes?

  • Great post. It's refreshing to read an intelligent argument on the matter instead of many of the knee-jerk responses out there. I hate having to think about the commoditization of music, but I've tried and am still trying to make a living doing what I love.

    I take solace in the fact that every time there's a new format out there, the music business goes through a transitionary period. But after, the market emerges stronger. When records meant that people could choose not to go to live performances, performers lost revenue but ended up making more when record sales took off. When tapes came along, people could bootleg and yet the industry grew as technology became cheap enough so that even more people could have access to recorded music. When CD's came out, both records and tapes were hurt, but even more people bought CD's and in fact replaced their collection. This meant that they bought the same music twice.

    The problem with digital downloads is that you don't get something physical when you pony up the cash. This means that it's hard to attach real value to the purchase. Someone smart will come along with an idea to make music worth something again in the minds of consumers. It's just a matter of when. Right now, the RIAA is hindering that growth by remind people of the old model instead of looking to a future model.

  • Great article, Peter. And yes, it's true that the RIAA website is completely obsessed with piracy.

    On another note, did anyone else download the "Guide for Parents and Teachers About Digital Downloading" PDF? It's actually surprisingly reasonable and not fixated on piracy in an extreme manner. It mostly just encourages parents to teach their kids to use legal music services.

  • @stephwo: good point. And actually, I have no problem with that … I know some parents do just this, or encourage legal purchases with gift cards. (I'd suggest Bleep over iTunes, but that might be overzealous parenting… heheh…)

  • Not a huge amount to add at this stage, but just wanted to say that this is categorically one of the best articles on how wrong-headed the industry's approach to piracy is that I've ever read, and I've been emailing to all and sundry. Superb stuff.

  • Add one more voice of dissent: I disagree. Bottom line: piracy is NOT like shoplifting, and I was frustrated enough about it to write a blog entry detailing why.

  • If you think the RIAA's site is depressing, check out the patent office's "kids" page:

    where's the "great inventors through out history?", where's the "how patents advance society" links?

    This thing is a lot bigger than just music.

    In order to commoditize art of any kind, you have to sell something physical: a CD, a book, a painting, etc. You as the artist may feel like you're selling your ideas, but in the mind of the buyer this is not true. The buyer bought a physical representation of that idea (the physical thing).

    Digitization and the internet removed the need for the physical manifestation of the idea, and people are sharing ideas just like they always have and always will.

    Piracy, as it's defined by the RIAA is not evil, it's just humans doing what they do, and … It is completely and utterly unstoppable.

    The RIAA and it's ilk are ruining people's lives trying in vain to stop the inevitable.

    A new business model is emerging. It's not the financial goldmine it used to be, but the music is better, and a lot more artists will be able to make smaller amounts of money (versus a few making a lot).

  • John


    What exactly is that new business model? Please share.

  • Damon

    "Not that you’d know any of this listening to the RIAA, because the only issue they want to talk about is piracy – not the actual sales one would associate with an “industry.”

    I appreciate that being conscious – "I would like to teach the world to sing" – of the fact that record companies are making a profit, is a groovy and empowering thing, but using that as an excuse to diminish or nullify the destructiveness (wrongness) of piracy, is shortsighted (irresponsible).


  • @John

    the new business model is relatively flat. direct from artist to consumer.

    You can see this already with some sites like cdbaby, amazon, iTunes, etc. Also with CC friendly labels like Magnatune, etc.

    The point is, Peter's really: stop worrying about loss prevention, because you can't prevent it. Focus on selling to the people who will buy, they are still out there and they will still buy.

    The thing that's missing from this new model (and I've been saying it for years) is some sort of flat structure for promotion.

    I could make the next Sargent Pepper's in my basement, master it myself, and throw it out on the internet, but that don't mean people will know it's there.

    Pitchfork etc help in this respect, but it's not nearly democratic enough, or on a large enough scale to replace the "big label" system (yet).

    In another 10 years it will be though.

    Brothers gonna work it out, my man 🙂

  • contakt


    I must disagree that the music is better. I think if anything, there are some amazing artists, as good as our heroes of yesterday but because of fewer barriers to entry (studios are cheap, mastering is cheap, you don't need to invest thousands into manufacturing) and the fact that anyone can release a record for free or for sale through imeem, itunes, cdbaby, etc means that there are more people releasing music.

    In the past, some of these barriers to entry (in my estimation) created a natural filter that only allowed the most appealing OR most talented (the focus for majors is on appealing, indies is a mixture of both) to get released. Without that filter it's a free for all.

    There are probably more people making good music now as it is cheaper and more people have access. However, I bet there are WAY more people making not so good music because of access.

    To get it back on topic: Yes, piracy is inevitable, as is litter – that doesn't make it okay. Unfortunately, we haven't figured out how to stop either of them, but that doesn't mean they aren't bad or should be ignored. I think education is the key here, and asking people to use their brains – which seems to be a lot for our (American) culture who would rather create laws and punish people instead asking people to be decent on their own.

  • @JRice: well, as I tried to make clear in the story, part of the reason to draw the shoplifting analogy is that there are indeed some differences — like the fact that you don't lose physical items. Piracy isn't shoplifting, but it is *like* shoplifting if you're in the business of selling something digital. And like shoplifting, it's something you can never stop entirely, something you don't want to ignore but also don't want to consume all of your time. And whatever you do to mitigate it, you have to make sure that doesn't get in the way of your paying customers, which is your real business.

    The other important difference is that the apparatus of file sharing is something that can be used to legal benefit, as with Creative Commons' support for file sharing.

    Anyway, my point is, we can either shut off the music discussion from every other business, or we can look (as with the Baldwin Locomotive example elsewhere in comments) at instructive examples.

    The thing is, there's so much of this "digital is completely different" discussion that we can power down our ability to learn from anything else.

    @Plurgid, I agree that there are new challenges in selling things that have no substantial physical manifestation (although, don't tell that to our power-sucking, heat-generating, space-taking servers). On the other hand, there are models for service-as-business, which is one way to think of this. And the growth of digital sales demonstrates that at least some people are willing to pay for things whether they have a physical manifestation or not. If that's because of, say, loyalty to an artist, then you might think broadly about that as being some part of a range of things the artist provides.

  • Niall

    It's long, rambling, ranting articles like these that keep fueling this very dull debate. The solution is very, very easy:

    1) Don't download pirated music, cos thats illegal
    2) Buy music online, from itunes or beatport or whatever

    As we do this, the RIAA will eventually disappear. Have I missed something?

  • @Niall:

    People have migrated to services like iTunes and Beatport in huge numbers.

    The RIAA is still very much here, and has gotten more vicious.

    So, yeah, I'd say you have missed something. Guess I'll have to continue to do my part with long, rambling, ranting, dull editorials. 😉

  • michel

    jrice states in his blogpost that with music piracy no product is stolen, but a service. as i see it, mp3s themselves are obviously not a product, but not a service either.

    a service to me is something that for instance a consultant offers. you want an expert opinion and to get it, you have pay for it. no tangible goods are exchanged, but if you're not willing to pay, you can't get the advice.

    an mp3 (or any digital format) is more like a service that got 'packaged' (without being made tangible) and became distributable. and you can get it without having to pay for it.

    so to me, digital audio is neither a product nor a service, and trying to talk about it in those terms gets you in trouble. maybe we need a new category to think about digital audio/video/books/games. how about "distributable services"?

    probably this is not a new thought, so if anyone can point me to similar ideas, please do!

  • Kevin

    Great article, Peter. If you re-invent the lock for long enough, you may forget what you were trying to lock in the first place. Both labels AND consumers are misguided in this day and age.

    Many music lovers who think music should be free have no problem at all spending thousands a year on data access, power, and equipment. On the other hand, many music lovers that wouldn't know CDM from a hole in the ground have no problem at all going to a local record store and spending 50 bucks on media.

    Artist-level promotion and direct distribution is a hell I wouldn't wish upon my worst enemy. There _are_ artists who pull it off and they may even enjoy it! *shudder* However, to tout that as "the future" sure is placing a lot of requirements on artists that have nothing to do with writing music because you, as the listener, don't agree with how the product arrives at your ears.

    These two sides are going to beat each other until they're both dead and you better hope the people they are fighting over don't lose interest.

  • contakt


    Really well written and spot on. Cheers!

  • Tom

    Yeah, its like arguing over who gets to make the money off the media, RIAA want's it to be them still even tho they don't sell the media anymore.

  • Good article! And well put.

    I guess you're familiar Andrew Dubber @ ? He's another big voice of reason on this topic.

    I frequently see the actions of the RIAA and get the feeling they are either entirely staffed by old men who really genuinely have no idea that Elvis is dead or what these internets things are, or they actually don't want to survive in the new industry. Maybe like some of the old unfair record deals they don't want people to succeed so that they can write it off on tax or something. Actually stranger things have happened – I've worked for events companies that are run by cartels that deliberately send the company bankrupt every few years, then the other director buys it up at liquidation rates, and does the same in a few years again….and so on

    anyway…you're absolutely spot on, their behaviour doesn't make sense for people who actually want to succeed.

  • Downpressor

    Kevin said "Artist-level promotion and direct distribution is a hell I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy."

    True that! Making music and selling music are VERY different skills. Unfortunately very few musicians I've ever dealt with have even the most basic business skills.

    Its easy to paint labels and the RIAA as villains, but that whole thing about "until you have walked a mile in another persons shoes" applies here. Until you have actually tried to deal with sales & distribution, been faced with people who dont pay on time or outright rip you off, you aint got a horse in this race IMNSHO.

    @Craig, cartel behavior is what I was referring to above. Cartels/guilds will act in the interest of the cartel/guild over the interests of individual members. Pretty sure this is a human nature problem.

    @plurgid, you figure out the "flat" model for promotion and you could become very rich (irony intended). BTW, selling through a distributor like Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes, etc, you are still faced with some level of business hassle. Things may be easier for the little guy, but its pretty far from the utopia that has been predicted since the start of the Napster era.

  • gbsr

    once, riaa had a quote on their website which was uncleared, so they were violating copyright. forced to take it down heh.

    ifpi did the same not so long ago.
    ironic to say the least.

  • wlh

    The RIAA is an easy target, since they are on the wrong side of history, clinging to outmoded technology and business models. But as a full-time professional musician (signed to an independent label) I don't see business models emerging that can realistically support the production of good recordings. Playing live is great, but it is more difficult for an up-and-coming band or artist to make a living from it than is usually acknowledged. It is immensely time-consuming, so if it is the only way to earn money, it will inevitably pull artists away from the recording studio. It has become very difficult to get any kind of budget for production. To an extent, this can be offset by tracking and mixing by the artists themselves, but this has a real disadvantage, compared to hiring a seasoned professional engineer and working in a well-designed and appointed recording studio. The music business is very tough these days, and being glib about the digital future and the new business models that are just around the corner and will save the day for struggling musicians doesn't impress me much.


  • I hope my post didn't come across as glib. Making money from music is extremely difficult, whether through traditional methods or via new business models.

  • MonksDream

    @downpressor – Yes, I do remember the "Home Taping Is Killing Music" debate. That's what I was referring to in the second paragraph of my post. It was wrong then and is wrong now. I stand by my reasons for why it didn't work then, however.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for the kind words, contakt and Downpressor.

    The "failed business model" statement is, more often than not, followed by: "I get more exposure by downloading therefore I buy more music." The problem with that is is usually doesn't happen in reality and then the statement becomes "Oh I don't support labels because they don't support the artists enough," when what they _really_ mean is "I already have it in the format I like, so why would I buy it just to make more work for myself?" In a perfect world, people would listen on myspace, imeem,, etc…and then run to the store to buy what they enjoyed. To those who don't remember, this is the same thing we used to do at CD stores with listening stations, so music exploration of indie artists is hardly a revolution….only now you sit on your butt while exploring and the artist doesn't have to press a CD to be heard, which IS the revolution.

    Just remember, folks…most artists don't record, mix, master, graphic design, make merch, market, organize tours, handle accounting, run lights, run sound, paste flyers, design websites, etc. Artists make music and whether or not you agree with the costs required to do all of the above things that artists need to make a living, they still exist. The RIAA members, misguided as they are, funnel a WHOLE lot of money toward artists, which is more than I can say about many so-called fans.

  • wlh

    <blockquote cite="Kevin">
    most artists don’t record, mix, master, graphic design, make merch, market, organize tours, handle accounting, run lights, run sound, paste flyers, design websites, etc.

    But of course, artists today face a choice between doing all or nearly all of those things, and turning a profit doing them, or finding another line of work in order to make enough money to live.

    We (my musical partner and I) maintain a decent recording studio, own all of our own backline, are designing and will maintain our own website, are learning all about DMX so that we can program lighting displays, have designed promotional materials of all kinds, hire and work with video designers and live videoists. We get involved in the booking of most of our live shows. Our record label helps a great deal, pays for some production costs and makes their studios available to us, and in general contributes a lot (otherwise we would not stay with them), but they are miserably unprofitable and understaffed and not well-heeled enough for us to depend on for many or even most of what needs to be done.

    There is nothing more childish in all of this debate than the ficticious opposition between artists and record labels. I suspect that this fantasy originates from people who do not have and probably could not get a recording contract. Musicians who have shopped around for such contracts and who have obtained them will have learned that record labels today are frail entities that go bankrupt in a heartbeat. They are nothing like the big-corporation cartoons that are painted about them on the internet. The first record label I was signed to was at one time a reputable and prosperous independent label, that produced quite a few successful artists. It folded, like a lot of lesser labels, and although our current label is doing fine for the moment, I worry constantly that it too will fold. If and when it does, we will have even more work to do and even more weight to carry.

    In all of what I've written above, what is missing? Only the music.


  • @Kevin: Right, but that's my point — I'm not convinced the RIAA is acting in the interests of its labels. And not all of those members are massive global corporations; there are some small label members and even some of those global corporations own smaller imprints that behave more like small labels because it can be what works.

    Some self-motivated artists have long managed their own business. Nothing about that is unique to the digital age. Likewise, you may find someone else to perform these services for you, whether you contract out or go to a label, small or large.

    But from tiny labels to massive labels, the RIAA has been the most visible front for the whole industry. And I think it's done a phenomenally bad job talking about what that industry is about. They have these resources to try to tell exactly the story commenters here are describing. Artists have an obligation to educate themselves. But if even artists have misconceptions about the record industry, you have to place some of that blame on the highly-paid individuals running their PR – or on the legal departments that have been stealing all the headlines.

  • J. Phoenix

    Excellent comparisons Peter. Enjoyable article with some great points not heard often enough.

  • Kevin

    @Peter: Oh I agree 100% with you on that and am not defending their choices, by any means. If the RIAA was a person working for me, I would find a new person….these are the folks I was referring to in my first post that have been working on the lock so long, all they see currently is the lock and the people trying to break it.

    I mention the things that I do because most people don't realize the extraordinary amount of effort that goes into album and touring productions for for artists, causing some ill-informed vendetta against record labels and their trade association. If 100,000 people refuse to buy an artists album because of X reason that they read off the internet and instead download the mp3, it hurts venue selection, royalty-generating outlets, ability to get major media interviews, etc.

    I can't say what the solution is, but I think we first have to get both the "Stop Stealing!" RIAA and the "Screw you, it's just data!" consumer off their respective high-horses if we really want to support the artist. I think both groups are equally out of touch.

    Having used about every method of acquiring music that exists, I would rather rip than search/download and still spend hours at Waterloo and Encore in Austin (local promo!) browsing around. I think it's far more fun and social, but maybe I'm just a bit dated. 🙂

  • Kevin

    I forget my original point…. (sorry it's the "failed business model" hot-button!) The RIAA screwed up by not listening to the consumers and the consumers screwed up because they figured out what they wanted and took it by force when the RIAA didn't hand it to them. The trade groups will continue to put their focus in the wrong place until the consumer wises up and stops copying for-profit works just cause it's easy.

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