Hey, remember Napster? Of all the times various people have claimed the Internet was going to destroy modern industries, this was the one time it really pulled it off before getting too distracted by cat videos and porn. Whatsisname wrote a program to share your ripped CDs, introduced it to the Internet, and within a decade had totally destroyed the music business.
But now…well, now, downloading music from a peer-to-peer service instead of a store is just kind of…pointless. What happened?
We Kind Of All Realized Most Of An Album Sucks
Here’s a dirty secret: the reason albums are usually twelve to fifteen songs long isn’t because a band has a collection of brilliant musical compositions it wants to share with the world. The band has two, maybe three, and the rest are on there to drive up their royalties.
Music executives call this “bundled” music and the reason bands make more when an album sells is that studios make more when an album sells. This is why even the most obscure of the one-hit wonders has a “best of.” Hell, even a nothing band like La Bouche somehow has three best-of compilations.
So, if you type in a band, any band, most of what’s popping up isn’t going to be anything even the band wants to listen to. Especially if…
You Come Across an “Unofficial Remix” Of the Track You Want Far, Far Too Often
We’ve all run into this: some whiteboy who thinks he’s the next Kanye decides to “remix” the latest 50 Cent single and put it up online as if it’s the official track! Soon, fame and fortune will be theirs! “Gold Digger” TOTALLY needed those police sirens dubbed in and absolutely no other changes!
Or, even better, some dillweed with a garage band saying his garage demo is the latest hit because people don’t care about the artist, they care about the music, man. I still have an MP3 I downloaded from some Canadian insisting he and his buddy were Beck and Thom Yorke, covering a Lou Reed song, mostly to demonstrate what Gordon Lightfoot being assraped sounds like.
True, the MP3 has seen the rise of some great remixers: Danger Mouse turned The Grey Album into a legit career and Girl Talk is arguably one of the greatest musical geniuses of the last ten years, turning nothing but other people’s music into something brilliant. But more often it’s a guy who calls himself Ghostface Reviva or something inflicting his anti-genius on us all.
Look, it’s no secret that people on the Internet are dicks. It’s practically written into the terms of service from your Internet Provider at this point: “Everybody with even a scrap of anonymity online is going to call you a doucheating penisnosed fart-tard, and there is literally nothing you can do about it.” Part of that dickery is messing with people on the Internet, especially people who can’t fight back, because generally whoever is doing this is getting beaten up by somebody they can’t fight back against.
Which means the solution to Internet douchebaggery is to just lift all gun laws and let everybody go to town, but we’re getting off topic.
The point is, they feel like hurting somebody, and by existing, you have volunteered. So, congratulations, just like touching Lady Gaga gives you a horrible disease, downloading her MP3 illegally gives you a toxic strain of Vundo that only bulk-erase magnets will cure. Seriously, Vundo’s bad news. There are venereal diseases you want more than Vundo, trust me.
Which brings us to…
Illegal Downloading Is Just Too Much of a Pain In the Ass
This is how a person legally downloads music: they go to Amazon, type in the name of the song, and download it. It costs them a buck and takes about ten seconds. I have a far too extensive collection of ’80s pop hits that proves how easy it is.
Torrents require you to fire up a torrent tracker, find a torrent site (which is no easy task in of itself), find the file you want, download it, and pray your download isn’t interrupted. Then you have to virus-scan it, then you have to check to make sure it’s not badly coded garbage, then you have to tag it and find the album art. There are plug-ins that exist solely to redirect you to the new version of a site when the Department of Justice shuts it down, that’s how complex it is.
Apple is a little more involved, true, but in the space of about five years, downloading music has gone from an annoying process involving research skills to something a primate could do accidentally while flinging their poo at a poo-resistant keyboard. They really have idiot-proofed the process.
The Customer Won, and the Bad Guys Lost
In 1999, the single biggest year financially in music, this was the nature of buying songs: songs were for the most part only available in album form, on physical media. Single tracks were only available in limited form, and only the very, very biggest hits. They were expensive. In fact, they were criminally expensive, literally: the record industry lost a lawsuit in 2002 over price-fixing. Your average album was $15, $17 if you blundered into a Strawberries or didn’t have Internet access to buy the CD on Amazon.
In 2011, you can buy albums or single tracks at your leisure. After years of complaining, they are available without any DRM for you to put on as many machines as you want. Any song that can be digitized is available for a buck, or even less, and albums top out at ten bucks. Or, you can pay twelve bucks a month and stream enormous libraries from subscription services.
In short, it’s gone from an industry where the companies dictate and control every aspect to one where the consumer, or at least people with a much bigger stake in making large groups of consumers happy, dictate and control every aspect.
And the record industry hates it. This is literally a new experience for them, this “actually abiding by the rules of capitalism and fair play” thing, and they do not like it at all. Keep in mind this is an industry that, to this day, has kept a strict control on radio: record labels in large part used to dictate the hits. This is an industry that has designed a contract system that ensures musicians getting million-dollar paydays will still owe them money.
The entire reason Napster exploded in the first place was the consumer was sick of getting screwed, and Napster offered an alternative to that. You may have heard Shawn Fanning went to the record labels and tried to set up a pricing scheme, and they turned him down cold. Of course they did: to them, Fanning was offering them a terrible deal, especially since it gave control to the consumer and took it away from them. Are you kidding? They’d lose billions!
Thus, downloading a song from Napster was, intentionally or not, an act of protest. Nobody worried about the artists because the artists were getting screwed by their labels anyway (except maybe Lars Ulrich). They still are: in the recent lawsuit against Limewire, the total amount of money going to the artists of the $105 million settlement the RIAA got (out of the billions they originally asked for) is…$0.
This is part of the reason the record industry is still futilely chasing music pirates. Nobody actually knows how much is lost to piracy, partially because there is absolutely no way to track who downloads what illegally and whether or not an illegal download made is a sale lost. One thing we do know is that the RIAA’s estimate of piracy losses have absolutely zero basis in fact.
They point to steadily declining sales revenues as clear evidence piracy is ruining them, but it’s kind of telling the revenues started dropping after they had to actually let the market set a price. And it’s an open question as to whether all those people buying tracks and albums digitally were ever pirate scofflaws in the first place: most piracy was centered around college campuses with high-speed internet access that most of the country didn’t have until later in the decade…you know, when the iPod and iTunes store had well and truly taken over the nation’s MP3 downloading.
Really, the lawsuits and grandstanding that currently define the RIAA are nothing more than a massive corporate hissy fit, smacking people with financial armageddon to make the rest of us long for the days when we could get fucked up the ass without lube. For some reason, it isn’t working.
It seems a lot more likely that the reason the music industry is losing money is because they have to properly compete in the market, instead of bundling their music and forcing us to buy those bundles at artificially inflated prices. Let’s see them admit that in court.