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A different perspective on the music filesharing debate

Submitted by Jakob on 13 May, 2006 - 13:18.My Blog | Music | Politics & Society

The debate on filesharing is heavily polarized and seemingly dominated by two camps; the record companies with their signed artists as allies attempting to come off as guardians of justice forming the vanguard of an army of lawyers marching on the supposedly anarchistic, irresponsible filesharers. I think this view, which is popularized through media, is extremely inaccurate and is an obstacle in every attempt to try and understand the issue and its underlying causes. Filesharing was inevitable and is here to stay, in fact its success is in part due to record companies' strategies.

I will in this article mainly focus on the sharing of music because the music industry shows several fine examples of what I will try to illustrate. This doesn't mean it is unique to this industry since many of the trends and strategies I'm describing are found in other branches and industries of entertainment and media as well.

Filesharing, what and how?

With the advent of the Internet, broadband connections, high capacity harddrives and the possibility to share information easily and quickly, filesharing was the obvious and inevitable result. Filesharing, as almost every Internet user knows, is a general name for the technology by which you can very easily transfer files from one computer on the Internet to another. By building networks of people sharing files, making them available for others to download, it is now possible to very easily access millions of songs, movies, computer software applications and games.

Filesharing technology knows no boundaries, and doesn't care whether you purchased the album or movie you are downloading. This has made filesharing the primary target for the RIAA (Record Industry Association of America) among others in their attempts to increase sales and find an explanation to their "decreasing sales". Many people express the opposite view and claim filesharing does increase record sales, but it's hard to find conclusive statistics supporting either's argument. It's a propaganda war, and the RIAA seems intent on winning by any means necessary, even lobbying for laws that would make copyright violation considered a worse offense than assault or rape, at least in the eyes of law enforcement.

Why filesharing is so popular

Some people would consider this a question with an obvious answer, refering to the poor morale of the general population and their greediness in stealing as long as its convenient. I think this is a grave error, and I will explain why. Listed below are some reasons posted as to why filesharing as gained such popularity.

  • It's free, so why pay if you can get it for free?

    While this is clearly part of the explanation, and is probably something many filesharers would agree with, it is not the entire answer as why filesharing has become so popular. Things aren't always as easy as one might like to think.

  • Easy access means less time buying, more time listening

    This explanation is far more important than it seems the RIAA realizes. People download music illegally because it is easier and simpler than going to the record store or using one of the other commercial filesharing applications. As with everything else, people are prepared to pay, sometimes a lot, to avoid trouble and achieve better time management. Yep, you heard it, people pay good money to be able to spend time on what they like to do rather than on the things they have to do.

    When it comes to filesharing this is a very compelling reason to continue using the non-commercial p2p-networks. The commercial networks use DRM (digital rights management) to prevent people from listening to downloaded music the way they like. The RIAA and its allies have become so paranoid they miss the point and the advantages of using the Internet for distibuting music. With all the DRM they force upon consumers, iTunes and similar online music stores do not appear a very attractive alternative to most people who do not own iPods. Why people purchase music from iTunes is because it's easy if you own an iPod, and probably also because they're driven by guilt. I argue that the success of iTunes as compared to other online music stores is that it is easy and simple to use, as long as you own an iPod, that is.

  • Long-time marketing trends and short-sighted profit goals result in a poor product

    This is something I've heard and seen very few people mention once filesharing becomes the topic of a real life conversation or forum thread. Long-time marketing strategies of the RIAA and the entire record industry have to a large extent enabled the success of filesharing.

    During the past twenty years or more major record labels have been at the mercy of short-sighted financial planning, and signing a band has been considered an investment. You got to get your return on your investment back in time, and that doesn't mean that it can take five years. No preferably their first album must be a success. This has led some rather self-destructing policies and attempts to sell the kind of music believed people like.

    Since sales, the return on investment and pure profits have become the motivating factor for the majority of record labels it has become common practice to more or less create bands, or artists who are believed to do suit the audience. Further, the trend has been to focus on hits, getting a song on MTV or the radio and to have people buy singles, then release albums. Tragically very seldom equally much work has been put into the other tracks as the two-three "hit" tracks, the other tracks serve as "padding" to fill out the disc.

    This is how the record industry picture people "consuming" music, it is the marketing department speaking. In fact very few music fans would agree that they "consume" music. I guess the kind of music you might "consume" would the trashy sugar-coated teenage pop the record industry mass produces these days. The sort of music people buy on singles, spin a few weeks on their CD player only to trash it later. It is not how people enjoy real music produced out of love for it, great music isn't consumed, and it never goes bad.

    Naturally people get fed up. A lot of the music sounds the same and you're not willing to pay a lot of money for a CD with only two or three great tracks the other being mediocre. When the combined price of three singles equals that of a full album, you look elsewhere. Filesharing is extremely popular, I argue, since you can download the tracks you want and you don't have to pay for the stuff you don't need. Now this isn't just true for the non-commercial filesharing services but is also known sales pattern at the iTunes Music Store, where singles or individual tracks tend be what most people purchase.

    In essense, the main reason people do not purchase albums is because they have lost their respect for the product, they don't consider it having enough additional value to warrant purchasing. This is all due to the short-sighted and exploiting business strategies of the record industry.

  • Killing off diversity, a narrow focus on the mainstream

    When record labels are more concerned about sales than music, artist with fewer fans and in less popular genres lose big time. The modern record industry isn't interested in promoting music because it believes in music or culture, it only believes in the dollar and this hunger for fast profits is what motivates the strategies and practices of the major record companies and the RIAA.

    People who have a diversified taste in music, who listen to music from a wide variety of genres and by hundreds of different bands, who aren't fans of sugar-coated teenage pop, see their music dwindle, and skyrocket in prices. They turn to filesharing to access their music since one of the most beautiful characteristics of the Internet is its way of bringing people together regardless of how obscure their interests might be.

    The RIAA and its allies have nothing to do with music, and what it actually, they long ago forgot about the soul of music and why it means so much to so much people.

  • Suing your customers makes them love you, NOT!

    The current practices of the RIAA to sue filesharers, and many cases people who do not even own a computer have caused extreme amounts of bad publicity. The greed displayed goes beyond reason as in the case of college students who the RIAA argue should use their college fund to pay for a settlement. They don't hesitate taking away a young person's entire career simply because they have a situation they cannot adapt to, and cannot make sense of. They're digging their own grave. Suing your own customers is very stupid. Let me say it again, very, very, very STUPID. S-T-U-P-I-D.

  • Installing rootkits on customers' computers

    Last year it was revealed that Sony had been shipping a so called rootkit with their music CDs. A rootkit is a piece of software that allows someone to remotely control and access every part of your computer. When faced with the charges, the Sony executive made a statement in the lines of "what people don't know doesn't harm them".

    The purpose of the rootkit, as well as the anti-piracy software installed along with it, was to prevent playback on Windows PCs. Problem was the application never asked the user for approval, putting half a million computers at risk. Soon enough a virus was released that took advantage of the vulneratibility opened by the root kit and Sony had to back off. Ironically Sony's so called "fix" only opened up more vulnerabilities.

    You can read more about the story over at Wired

  • People just don't like the RIAA

    The final explanation, which I consider to be one of the most important, is the development toward a world where the huge record companies are no more. With modern information technology, recording technology and digital distribution the vacuum the record companies once filled is quickly disappearing.

    In the old days, record companies were what enabled artists to reach their fans with recorded music, they were the middle man and without them recorded music would never have had the impact it had. However things change, and the services they once provided such as management, recording, marketing and distribution can now be carried out by artists themselves by outsourcing to small companies specialized in one or the other. This will mean more financial risk to the band itself, but you can start off with a relatively small investment and originally use your website for distributing and marketing your music. Word of mouth, virtually free marketing has become one of the defining aspects of people call Web 2.0. Many websites and services such as StumbleUpon and have sprung up offering simple ways to share your favorite websites with other people.

    As for recording, with more and more companies offering studio recording it's no longer as expensive as it once was. The recording technology has also developed, becoming better and cheaper. And as long as you truly believe in what you do, nothing's impossible! :)

    With more control in the hands of artists, and less in the hands of the record industry, music will flourish. Not only will bands and artists be better compensated for what they do, they will be able to do what they like, because they love what they do. There won't be anyone looking over their shoulder telling them what they should do because it's what their marketing specialists believe will sell most copies.

The future

I believe filesharing is spearheading the long-awaited revolution in music and will allow more freedom for bands and artists in doing what they believe in. It will mean benefits for everyone, more music for us fans, more diverse music, cheaper music, artists getting a larger share of the money and being able to do what they really like and really believe in. Great news for everyone, except the old gigantic dinosaurs of the record industry who do not have the sense to embrace change or the ability adapt. I hope they will go and die peacefully, but I doubt that will be the case. I won't miss them.

Sites of interest

Here's a list of sites with a different and very sound attitude to music, filesharing and the record industry:
Downhill Battle is a non-profit organization working to support participatory culture and build a fairer music industry.
Buy smart with the RIAA Radar. The RIAA Radar is a tool that music consumers can use to easily and instantly distinguish whether an album was released by a member of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
The Electronic Frontier Foundation is one of the most important organizations today working for consumer and citizen rights on the Internet, among many other things.

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