Published Sep 01, 2000Throughout the course of the debate over MP3s (smaller and easier to trade versions of near-CD quality digital audio tracks) and Napster's role in the alleged proliferation of music piracy, one thing has become abundantly clear. This entire controversy is about money, and the recording industry's fear that it won't be able to make as much because of potential bootlegging. If the RIAA wants to know why MP3s and music swapping have become so popular, it doesn't have to look much farther than the nearest mirror.
This controversy is a typical, time-tested and true reaction to music industry arrogance; to record companies and record stores that continue to turn a blind eye to consumers who know the real value of a CD is not the inflated sticker price that is commonplace nowadays.
Even the National Post, Canada's most unabashedly pro-business organ, suggests clandestine collusion in the industry is fuelling the backlash. "For many years, record industry oligopolists have wrung enormous profits out of the multiple layers of sales and distribution," Post editorialists suggested in a July 28 piece entitled ¡§Napster takes a hit.¡¨ "If CD prices do not come down, record companies will." And now 28 U.S. states are suing the industry for exactly that kind of collusion and setting minimum prices at retail stores.
The current phenomenon is not entirely unlike the proliferation of home recording that began in the 1970s when vinyl and cassette prices started to rise to unrealistic levels. The ugly irony now, or course, is that consumers pay almost twice as much for CDs as they did pre-recorded cassettes while the actual cost to manufacture a CD is about half that of vinyl or cassettes.
The industry, through the RIAA and artists like Dr. Dre and Metallica, like to sing the blues about how MP3 swapping is going to kill the industry and how it's ripping off artists. Bullshit!
First, CD sales have actually increased through the period Napster was gaining in popularity. Whether this is, as Napster honchos like to tell us, the result of people taking advantage of their product to sample music and then purchase the official CD or if it's just a coincidental result of more prosperous economic times is unclear.
Second, given the screw-job contracts most artists get into with their record companies, how many artists would actually be seeing royalties even if they were selling the CDs RIAA claims aren't being sold due to bootlegging? Not many o otherwise there would be more than two artists weighing in heavily on the ¡§anti¡¨ side of the debate, especially smaller bands who potentially stand to lose more than Metallica or Dr. Dre. The smaller bands know, however, that even if they sell 50,000 more discs, they'd never see a penny because they have to sell about 500,000 discs just to recoup their advances. And few new bands do that. As for indie bands, they already depend on touring and merchandise for the bulk of their income because their records are often hard to find and don't sell in hugely profitable numbers. MP3 swapping gets their music out and allows them to build audiences so when they hit the road, there will actually be people at their shows to pay the cover and buy T-shirts.
Third, to suggest that computer files burned on home CD writers will replace actual properly packaged discs to the point that anyone's going to lose money is ludicrous. When people buy CDs they're not only purchasing music, they're buying the art, the lyrics and the convenience of not having to spend hours locating and downloading songs, lyrics and pictures from different sites and then making their own inferior sounding CD. Just as the advent of home cassette recording didn't kill the industry 15 years ago, MP3s and Napster-like programs will not be the death knell for it now. And you can bet that in ten years we'll be having this debate when some other technology comes along.