Hot on the Web
Lost in Cyberspace
Online San Diego
Feature Articles
Book Reviews and Reading Diary
Music Reviews
Favorite quotates
Contact Me

Is Hollywood stirring a backlash?

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on September 27, 2002
(Issue 2039, Show Me the Money)

As the music and film industries try to squelch the emerging digital technologies personified by the Internet, it's fair to ask whether they don't risk alienating the very fans they most need to court.

Sales of new CDs are in the tank, and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is blaming music trading on the 'Net. In response to the supposed threat to their existence posed by online pirating, the RIAA is pushing new legislation that would grant them quasi-government powers to secretly search the hard drives of individuals' PCs if they (the music industry) suspected that individual of pirating music.

No search warrant needed, no probable cause required — and no recourse if you're wrongly targeted.

And that's not even the full extent of the RIAA's overreach: They had a busy summer season, suing various ISPs and telecommunications companies trying to force them to block access to sites the RIAA accused of hosting pirated music. They even sued ISPs to try to have individuals they suspected of trading music online kicked off the 'Net.

A case of overkill

The music industry's fear of new technology goes back to at least the late 1960s, when the first cassette tape recorders appeared. And in the 1970s, the inexpensive 8-track tape platform suddenly made large-scale music piracy lucrative. Seemingly every rural gas station in the South and Midwest had a rack of bootleg 8-tracks for sale.

But in the 1970s, RIAA didn't go after folks who purchased or used pirated music — they went after those big operations that made and sold illegal copies of music.

The RIAA was more careful two and a half decades ago — or at least less paranoid. Or perhaps they were simply more intelligent at that time and recognized that busting the chops of music fans was no way to generate increased sales.

Certainly the RIAA was no more concerned about musicians back then — tales of musicians dying in poverty after a lifetime of creativity abound in the blues, country and jazz worlds. Hollywood execs sit around their pools tanning themselves while the folks whose talent provided all that luxury sit in dire poverty — this is one stereotype with a huge swath of truth running through it.

And while the music industry claims its 20 percent drop in sales is attributable in large part to online music swapping, the numbers just don't add up. MP3s and other formats of music files are rather large. A typical four-minute pop song is going to run over 4 megs — few folks with a dial-up connection are swapping music files.

Since there is nowhere near a 20 percent market penetration for high-speed residential Internet access, even if 100 percent of all cable and DSL subscribers had given up 100 percent of their music purchases, online music swapping still wouldn't account for the drop in music sales over the past year.

Even counting in CD burners and other music-sharing devices, it seems clear to anyone but the RIAA that it's not technology that's at issue here: It's the industry itself.

Fans fighting back

The music industry has long pitched the musicians against the public — and skimmed billions off the top in doing so.

While Paul McCartney and Metallica have profited handsomely from the corporate music world (and thus will stand by the RIAA in opposing new music technology), more and more unsigned bands are embracing the Internet as a way to reach fans without having to sign over their souls to music biz moguls.

Fans, too, have had enough of the heavy-handed tactics of the music industry — and are fighting back.

One such effort is personified by the Boycott RIAA site. This site is a sort of repository of consumer rage against the iron-fisted tactics of the music industry. It's also got links for letting Congress know how you feel about some of the proposals, as well as speaking your mind to the Justice Department over their unwillingness to protect citizens from illegal behavior by the record companies.

Is a truce possible?

As baseball players and management found out during their abbreviated showdown this summer, ultimately it is the fans who pay the salaries of everyone in the gig — from the richest billionaire owner to the poorest rookie trying to get by on a miserly $200,000 a year. As the players' strike date approached, fans spoke out vociferously against both players and owners — both screaming their rage during games and not coincidentally, staying home from the games and spending their money elsewhere.

So it is with the music business — and if a 20 percent drop in sales can't convince the music biz to find new ways of conducting things, then maybe it will take one or more major labels going out of business to drive the point home that customers are no longer willing to go back to the way things have been run in the past.

Private citizens sharing their favorite music is here to stay — and the smart corporate exec is the one who finds a way to adjust licensing to reflect that.

But the more the music industry digs in its heels and targets individual Americans for persecution and prosecution, the more likely it is to lose customers it will never win back.