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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.)