RIAA File-Sharing Verdict Delays Day Of Reckoning On Downloading - InformationWeek

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10/11/2007
10:10 PM
Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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RIAA File-Sharing Verdict Delays Day Of Reckoning On Downloading

I'm sorry to disappoint the record companies, but the Recording Industry Association of America's legal victory against Jammie Thomas, who was ordered by a Minnesota court to pay $220,000 in damages for sharing songs over Kazaa, changes nothing. Kids still steal most of their music, and the recording industry hasn't accepted the reality that it has to bag both the CD and DRM before it has a prayer of reviving itself.

I'm sorry to disappoint the record companies, but the Recording Industry Association of America's legal victory against Jammie Thomas, who was ordered by a Minnesota court to pay $220,000 in damages for sharing songs over Kazaa, changes nothing. Kids still steal most of their music, and the recording industry hasn't accepted the reality that it has to bag both the CD and DRM before it has a prayer of reviving itself.Meanwhile, smart artists like RadioHead are saying so long to the suits who these days bring little value-add to a popular band. As is by now well known, the group is offering its new album online to its fans, who are invited to download it for any price they're willing to pay.

RadioHead reportedly will enlist a record label to distribute the physical CD of its record "In Rainbows." However, here, too, the band has turned tradition on its ear, since they're not the supplicants, but the ones in control. It's a far cry from the days when John Lennon complained "What songs has Dick James written?", in reference to the music publisher who'd plucked the Beatles' rights out of the Fab Fours' naïve hands, for a song. (Of their ignorance about copyright, Lennon later said, "We thought songs were like the air.")

So, too, are today's youngsters unaware -- though in most cases, willfully -- that 99 cents must almost always be paid, or else you've probably got an illegal file on your MP3 player or iPod. There are many figures floating around, but last December's assessment by The New York Times that iTunes sales account for only about 22 songs per iPod sounds about right.

If you think the rest of most peoples' walking-around music comes from ripped CDs, you're delusional. Kazaa may be dead, but LimeWire isn't. Sharing of music via MySpace also is rampant.

Which is why you have to give bands like RadioHead immense credit. Think of what they're doing as the hottest Web 2.0 application going. By tapping into the respect and love their fans have for them, RadioHead is creating an immediate and immensely large online community. That sense of Web togetherness also is activating a willing-to-pay e-commerce crowd out of people who'd otherwise just take the stuff off LimeWire.

(Actually, RadioHead is creating a flash mob, since its community is mostly quiescent until a new album comes out to spark interest. But flash mob is an already-archaic term, so I've avoided it.)

In the credit-where-credit-is-due department, I'll wave my over-30 banner and point out that Natalie Merchant and Aimee Mann did much of the groundwork in paving the way for artists to eschew record companies in favor of going directly to consumers.

The stupidity of the record companies is an easy target for any blogger. So the astute reader who's slogged through this much will wonder if I've got anything new to add to the usual prescription of eliminating DRM and not suing your audience. My answer is, not really; sometimes the simple answers are correct.

Interestingly, the one impediment to success that plagues the American automakers in their battles with the Japanese -- make something that people want to buy -- is no longer the stumbling block in the music industry that it used to be.

Namely, there's lots of good music around now. My current favorite is PJ Harvey's White Chalk, an album I love all the more because absolutely everyone I've played it for hates it. Think John Lennon/Plastic One Band as re-envisioned by a Victorian riot grrl. I also love KT Tunstall's Drastic Fantastic, although Spin Magazine's characterization of her as "your aunt's favorite songstress" is amusingly -- and cruelly -- a bit too apt. And don't forget Feist, the girl in the iPod commercial.

So, if there's any time that's ripe for the music industry to get its digital act together, it's now.

But don't take my word for it. Check out the thoughts of Michael Robertson, the Internet entrepreneur who founded MP3.com amid the tech bubble of the 1990s. He offers his 2008 Predictions For The Digital Music Business on our sister site, InternetEvolution. When you're done with that, read my InformationWeek discussion with him from this past June, Why I Love MP3 Music Lockers But Hate DRM.

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