Why don’t we talk about “illegal” downloading anymore? (a response)
A Seattle Weekly article from the 20th of April asked this question. It then proceeded to make all sorts of assumptions, connections and reasons that made no sense and just generally made the writer seem like he was writing from a cave without Internet. (and TV, radio, or anything beyond maybe a studded club to pick up women, a bed of straw, firewood and perhaps some premium hair products) Let’s break it down here a bit. Why? Well, because this is a subject near and dear to my heart. And, since it’s said (in a *fairly well-received and respected book you can find here) you need at least 10 thousand hours in order to master something, I have to just keep writing every day so that I may someday change my blog’s name to “ULTRA MASTER OF WRITING! or I put in my 10 thousand, how you like me now?” I still have at least 3000 hours to go, so I have to get to it. Over-long, similar-to-all-my-other-rants articles are my bread and butter.
The article begins nicely enough. Then it forgets to mention that although the year 2000 was a peak in music sales for the industry, it was also in fact a peak for Napster and other means of acquiring music without paying. This is substantial and very, very important to remember. Millions of people were downloading millions of tracks for free on services that pre-date Napster by a few years while the industry was just beginning to sob about the losses created by file-sharing ALL while raking in record profits. Not exactly something to sob about. In the years between then and now, the industry sobbed again and again in public in many cases while doing VERY well considering how much they claimed to be losing. All while paying more and more in legal fees while dropping and failing to promote artists on their rosters. Major errors were made on their end by leaning toward fear rather than embracing optimism through technology that was way ahead of them in the game already. The article then insinuated that the quality of music was just as bad before file sharing as it was after, negating this excuse people use for their downloading habits, all while essentially ignoring the real way of answering those who choose to download what they claim to hate. See, I didn’t even have to explain it. Already hate it? Why download it? But to suggest that bad music is NOT one of the reasons why people do what they do by pointing out that things are as bad now as they used to be and nothing has really changed is disingenuous. And has very little to do with the subject in the first place.
What’s really happened is the death of diverse and trustworthy, mass-market curation. In part, the slow death of radio. As the music marketing machines re-focused and cut back on taking risks as a fear response to file-sharing, the result was less truly new music being played on radio, TV or even Internet portals. MTV slowly became the hazardous waste dump of the world’s worst reality programming concepts, eventually completely abandoning music. So-called alternative radio stations across the nation either changed formats to top 40 or froze their playlists somewhere in the beginning of the 2000’s, putting Nirvana and Sublime with a touch of RATM and Pearl Jam on rotation 24/7 to sate the baser need for easy-to-digest nostalgia by a 30-plus audience that had already stopped buying new music anyway. (but in many cases would, if given the chance to sample something new)All while ignoring a new generation of music fans just dying for someone out there to say “check THIS out” once in a while.
The key here is MASS MARKET. Sure, we have college stations out there for the die-hard new music fans, but we have almost no non-top-40 outlet for the latest thing anymore. The latest thing, instead of being pushed, promoted and spread with intent, is marginalized and ignored by the only REAL means of getting to huge audiences. Which still is radio and TV, no matter what the “netsperts” out there would tell you while they sit on their piles of imaginary Web 2.0 play money. You and I both know that the music industry, out of fear, is the one who really dropped the ball on the development of new music. Sure, they pushed the safe stuff. The Coldplays and Nicklebacks and whatever other bands were on the closing credits of shitty movies out during those years. In my part of the world we have 2 radio stations that play new music on a regular basis. One is a college station that barely comes in because it’s on the outskirts of my major market. The other is up in the hills and plays some new music, but not much, since it’s focus appears to be feeding the ears of ageing hippies more than anything, in spite of the fact that it’s a locally funded non-profit, indie station that’s supposed to be offering an alternative to what’s available on the airwaves already. And even they are almost impossible to bring in from the major metropolitan area. What used to be the local “alternative” station was abandoned for a computer-programmed lego-brick-like station that has the same DJs across the nation wherever else it’s unseated a real station that people under 40 actually listened to. Plug and play top 40 and 90s nostalgia radio. So if a new artist did begin to explode nationwide, in my area no station would be able to play them. Let’s face it, radio is still the best way to reach a huge, nearly captive audience begging for some kind of guidance. Instead they find themselves drifting around the chaotic Internet, unfocused and apt to not find new music they MIGHT like if they just found a way to sample it. Like radio used to do for them. I’ve tried services like Pandora, and it just doesn’t work for me as well as others claim it works for them. I gave it some time and eventually got so bored with it and so frustrated with its unneccessary limitations, I moved on.
But radio, radio is dead. It’s gone. And no-one appears to be willing to take a risk for longer than a few months to a year. Not like they used to. Everything is corporate now, with almost no room for risks in radio. It’s always the easy, comfortable option for them. And when things turn sour, they can point to articles like yours to back up their fear-based claims of THIEF! THIEF!! rather than face the fact that they dropped the ball and no-one has the guts to pick it back up and admit their mistake. It’s MUCH easier to blame it on the customer base, calling them thieves as they wander around the Internet doing their best to find something interesting in the billions of artists that are out there. Some online radio stations and sites have picked up the fight, sure. Pandora and service like them are satisfying to many, but not to me. It’s missing the human factor, that one voice out of the many you can trust to find that latest, coolest thing that you MUST hear. And it’s all too spread out. There’s no way in hell a site like Pandora, as successful as it is across the world, can reach a single, local area and get that one track out there so that it can reach the truly large audience it deserves. There’s no such thing as a regional hit that spreads out across the nation. Used to happen all the time. Not anymore. It’s all too unfocused, too spread out. And there are FAR too many blogs for them to reach the truly huge audiences radio can reach regionally.
So what do people do? They hit their favorite torrent sites and see what’s new. See what other people are commenting on, rating and most importantly, seeding. If I see something new with 100 seeds, I’m gonna grab it. Period. Even if it doesn’t ring a single bell. They hit Myspace and see what people are posting about. They check out what people are talking about on Facebook. Then, armed with that information, they find a blog with a sample (usually sent by the artists themselves for promotion) or go to the torrent sites or direct download sites and grab it. But what exactly does this translate to? Theft? Or are they simply groping in the dark for SOMETHING good to listen to? And if they think it sucks, instead of never buying it in the first place as they did in the days of radio, they delete it. How exactly is that theft? Ignoring the fact that taking a copy of something by definition is not theft. (reminder: if I copy your bicycle, you can still ride to work on yours) It’s actually more akin to something like a guy standing out in front of the county fair handing out free water bottles, except the guy in the fairgrounds SELLING water does NOT have other means by which to monetize his supply and does his best to get the guy giving water away thrown off the property. Music, on the other hand, can be monetized in more ways than retail sales. Concerts, licensing concert footage for airing on cable/TV, licensing to film, tv , licensing to advertisers, merchandise and ad sales on their web sites all the way to other artists licensing samples of their recordings. The list goes on and on. In a way, it’s simply more like what people already call it… SHARING.
Soundscan does indeed claim that 489 million albums were sold last year. But when you look at the claims made in the industry vs the actual drop in sales from 2000, the losses are exaggerated.(and in fact, the article gets some of the numbers wrong. Soundscan reported a 12.7 percent drop in album sales in 2009, less than the drop the previous year of 14 percent, which translates to a lesser drop in sales than the previous year.. but that way of representing the numbers didn’t serve the article’s agenda, did it?) And more importantly, UNDER-EXAMINED! Many directly blamed what they called “piracy”, failing to pay attention to everything from the industry changing the way it promotes its artists, lowering the number of risks taken on emerging talent all the way to the absolute fact that consumers were spending a HUGE amount of money on video games and hardware. Consider the limited resources of your average young, passionate consumer and do the math. If it’s being spent HERE, chances are it’s NOT being spent OVER THERE. Look past the numbers alone and look at the personas that were the winners in 2009. Number one? A dead iconic pop star, Michael Jackson, was number one. Taylor Swift had the number one album, a distant second place from Jackson,followed closely by SUSAN FRIGGEN BOYLE!
What do those numbers tell you? Without insulting people? Not much. But if you’re willing to not be nice for a moment in the service of representing reality, what you have here is a buying public that is either too old to figure out how to download OR possibly too young to be allowed un-supervised access to a computer. And here’s the not-very-nice part. The Susan Boyle audience is either too old to figure out how to grab the stuff free or on iTunes OR simply too dumb. These musical choices also convey a certain lack of sophistication and taste. These are , for the most part, Target and WalMart impulse buyers. What these statistics are missing are the breakthrough artists you would have seen in the past. Some would say it’s because those thieving downloaders are preventing these up and coming artists from getting the exposure they need in order to be seen and heard. But we’ve been through this already. The industry has systematically dismantled the means by which these artists could gain exposure IF they were invested in on any level. The industry dropped this ball, not the customers. If they can market to the Fox-news worshiping, god-fearing, morally simplistic, reality-TV watching, science-hating, other-fearing, WalMart shopping, teen-idol adoring masses, they can market AGAIN to the portion of the population that’s never even seen an episode of American Idol. Which is a number much, much larger than they may think. Instead, again, they have decided to blame us instead of taking responsibility for ignoring the margins which in the past have led to massive sales. (see: the Pink Floyds of the past, the 80s under-then-over bands such as The Cure, The Smiths, all the way to the big grunge artists of the 90s who would have NEVER broke through without a music-playing MTV and alternative radio in essentially every single US market) Instead, now, we see very few artists beyond perhaps MGMT and a select few popping up into the charts from time to time past the Disneyfied artists, American Idol winners or runners-up, and other saccharine sound-alikes. And then you have rap-hip-hop, which continually chugs along at an acceptable pace while ignoring it’s own extremely talented, original underground.
While the increase in digital sales were not as impressive as previous years (45% increase in 2007, 27% increase in 2008) an increase of sales in ANY industry or single business of 8.3% (which was the increase in digital sales in 2009) should not be looked upon as a failure. But, considering that we live in a country that considers constant growth as the only realistic measure of success of any kind, it’s not that shocking that a decrease in GROWTH would or could be seen as a form of failure. Gee, do you think maybe it has something to do with the economy COLLAPSING!!?? Didn’t think so. Must be the pirates. Yeaaargh.
The article then quotes numbers estimated by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. The f^c(ing IFPI!! Do you think maybe there’s a motivation to estimate a bit high on their part? What scientific method exactly did they use to estimate the number of “illegal” downloads for 2009? Could they maybe have included some wild guesses? Why would they EVER do such a thing?? I’m sure their numbers are pure science, zero propaganda. I mean, they’ve never, ever shown any disdain for people downloading music off the Internet without paying for it, right? So there would never be a motivation to make that enemy look more substantial than it really is. (end sarcasm.. sorry.. it got a little ugly even for me there) THOSE NUMBERS ARE STAGGERING, the article then claims. Did you stop even for a second to consider that the numbers are staggering because they’re made up? Consider, instead, that it’s not virtually impossible to estimate those numbers with anything resembling accuracy… it’s absolutely impossible. Now, to be fair and not become disingenuous myself, everyone knows as well that MOST of the bittorrent and other file sharing traffic IS of the without-permission type. But an increasing number of that traffic is legitimate downloads coupled with downloads of artists who do not have any problem whatsoever with the idea of a potentially huge audience downloading their albums for free. As long as they show up for the concert, buy the t-shirts and tell everyone how amazing they were. Or send traffic to their web sites. (this is one area in which artists have not yet got the big picture.. why so many attempt to keep their audiences peeled to their Myspace or Facebook pages, handing those respective companies the resulting ad revenue, rather than doing their best to direct fans to their own sites, where they could display unobtrusive Google text ads, bringing in another smaller but steady income stream.. which is better than NO additional income stream, is beyond my brain and pay grade)
It’s easier certainly to just take a position, read the numbers with the slanted interpretation included by sources with a clear agenda and drop a fresh, steaming article upon your readers. But to me, that stinks. Not just because it makes so many outrageous assumptions and conclusions, but also because it’s so easy now using the Internet to get some idea of the bigger picture before plunging into a position. (wow.. lotta poop symbolism there) This is made even more sad and sort of odd considering Chris Kornelis’ other writing for Seattle Weekly. I took some time to really read a LOT of his writing and discovered a real love for music, local and otherwise. I found his writing to be witty, sharp, entertaining and filled with what makes the best music writing so cherished. Brief when appropriate, expanded and detailed when needed as well. I just wish this particular article were not such a run-of-the-mill, under-researched mess of judgmental, moralizing crap. At times, reading the article evokes an image of a man in a suit standing behind the writer at a computer with a gun pointed at a kitten saying things like..
“NO! I want the word ILLEGAL at least 2 more times in there, and what’s that part about “sympathetic characters”? What the hell? I don’t think you like kittens very much, Chris! Don’t you like kittens? It sure doesn’t seem like you appreciate little kittens that breathe with lies like that, son! What we have here is what I perceive as a serious disconnect between you and the concept of healthy young felines in your vicinity! Or am I wrong?”
But the most frustrating thing about the article for me is the title of the damned thing. “Why don’t we talk about illegal downloading anymore?” First of all, who is WE? If by “we” you mean you and 4 or 5 people you hang out with who write about music, maybe. But if by “we”, you mean most of us, or even a large percentage of us, you’re clearly not paying very much attention. Seriously, WTF? Find any discussion on any forum or YouTube video comments section related to the subject (of which there are millions, growing constantly) and you will find heated debates about the morality, the numbers, the politics.. everything. And when I say heated, I mean the Hades-side of the river friggen Styx heated. And sure, a huge number of people still see a download as analogous to physical theft. Most of them will never change their position, no matter the evidence or reality. And another large percentage think that it’s perfectly fine to download an album from a band they profess to adore without ever paying for it, going to their shows or buying even the tiniest bit of their merchandise. But in between these two extremes lies the rest of us.
We see something that looks like it might be interesting and we sample it by downloading. If we hate it, we delete it. If we love it, sometimes we buy it. With certainty, we will go to see them live. We absolutely will tell others about how amazing they are. We’ll share the files with people we know. We’ll write about the band in our blogs. We’ll post about them on Twitter. In some cases, we’ll not only buy the download, we’ll actually buy a physical CD. Or vinyl! But we will NEVER buy a CD or a download after we’ve sampled it and found it to be horrible. The real important factoid here is… we NEVER did. Ever. (well, I remember a few turds at Tower records telling me an album was amazing, then purchasing it, taking it home and finding out it was in fact the worst thing ever recorded) The thing that’s really changed, as I’ve stated here repeatedly, is that we have limited ways in which to be exposed to new and non-mainstream artists. We look at the price of a single track on iTunes and scratch our heads. On average, the same price per track or in some cases MORE per track than we’d pay if we purchased it at the local mom and pop CD store. If it’s supposedly convenience they’re selling us, free file sharing has them beat. Exclusivity is an illusion now. In some cases, we pay more for a digital download version and get LESS control over the thing we’ve supposedly “purchased” through the wonderful innovation of Digital “rights” management. Guess what? If it’s managed, it’s not a right anymore. If we pay for music like the old days, we want to actually OWN it like the old days. You know, in sort of the same way the music industry expects profits, growth and demand-price relationships to remain static or positive in their favor. iTunes and Amazon have virtually removed DRM, but it still lingers out there in the shadows. If we’re paying for a “license” rather than a recording, the price should reflect that fact and so far it does NOT.. in any case, at any time, anywhere other than The Pirate Bay. I’ve said it a thousand times already. The next big innovation in technology will be price point. (Internet culture, in my opinion, complicates the traditional demand/price point equations and results) If you consider even the basic premise of substitution price points, consider that your typical iTunes single song purchase now begins it’s life as a substitution for the price point of $0.00 ! Now we see some places going over the 99 cent price point, which is another price point no-no. People are used to buying single items for the magical, great-deal-sounding 99 cents, which works against us. Many of us are just so “okay” with the 99 cent price, we forget that in the case of most albums, 99 cents is way, way over the price we pay per song when we purchase a single, physical CD. Especially if it’s on sale. We have here an industry that is using excuses to ignore that the demand for it’s product has continually and drastically reduced over a relatively short period of time. The problem is that we, it’s potential customers, are the excuse. And now they are going so far as to invest in and in my opinion pay for new laws and treaties which will assure that their product’s demand remains artificially high by restricting access to alternatives they would like to be universally defined as illegal. The big problem with this is that the methods of acquiring their product at the $0.00 price point are the same methods many artists are using to spread and promote their work in a way that does not burden them financially if their particular work suddenly becomes popular. Bandwidth aint cheap, Harvard. But bittorrent is a way to spread that bandwidth around a bit to make it affordable for ANYONE to reach millions of people without emptying your bank account. And that.. THAT has to make pretty much any middleman used to limited, exclusive channels very , very nervous. But as I said earlier, they already OWN the existing limited, exclusive channels and do NOTHING with them except push out the next ephemeral, bland, generic “artist” on their now short rosters. AND they want to put a stop to innovation in distribution simply because it can ALSO be used by average users to trade music these companies own for free. We have a name for this behavior in the business world already, it’s called anti-competitive.
Popular bittorrent site Mininova recently was de facto shut down. It’s still there, but the torrents are limited to approved uploaders. These accounts are being doled out VERY carefully and they are difficult to obtain. But that’s not what really killed the site. What killed the site was the audience being turned away. They were turned away by restricting the content indexed on the site. Once you start with those restrictions, the huge audiences run away in droves to other places. Mininova had many artist-approved torrents with HUGE audiences downloading them. By removing the larger audience for the unwanted content, the audience for the approved content shrunk as well. If “legal” content had any shot of being a major draw for the visitors to the site, that shot was ruined by the imposed restrictions. The artists and the labels tried to play along and as a result, Dutch anti-“piracy” outfit BREIN ruined it for them by leaning again on fear rather than optimism.
I know this can seem confusing if you’ve managed to make it this far. First he says we need curators again. (radio DJs, hip record store employees, etc etc) Then he says that the competition to the status quo is basically saying “we don’t need no stinking curators”. So which is it, Burbank Community College? It can’t be both, can it? Well, yes it can. We DO need both curators and a means by which anyone can reach a huge audience without said curators. See, once an artist breaks through using something like bittorrent, music blogs or Internet radio (or all 3.. or more), that’s when the good curators paying close enough attention stumble on these new artists and take it from there. But if one is made illegal and the other is under-used, what are we left with? Pretty much what we had this year in the mainstream. A dead pop star, a group that broke up in 1970, an old lady singing show tunes and a teenage country music star as the big winners. And how many albums do you have to sell now to crack billboard’s top 100? 150? And is that because artists cannot afford to make albums anymore? Heh. Hell no. The albums are being made, and sold. Many are not even tracked by Billboard and Soundscan. Bands are making money and bands are failing. Like they used to. It’s just that nowadays they have a decent scapegoat in US to blame for it. We’re YOKO! Without the cool,weird high voice and famous friends.
But finally (yes, I’m almost finished) the last thing that bugged me was the assumption that “illegal” downloading was and could continue to be responsible for taking down mom and pop CD stores. BRISTLE!
The same bad practices and abandoned risks coupled with a non-competitive digital price point account for a huge drop in sales at CD stores. And you also MUST NOT ignore the reality that the biggest music retailers out there are the big stores like WalMart and Target. This wasn’t the case in such an extreme way back in 2000. The big chain music stores were still around (although many were already dying.. even before the onset of Napster), able to buy in larger numbers so as to offer CDs at prices the mom and pops could not compete with without taking a loss. Same with the big stores like WalMart. The record companies and distributors didn’t have to allow this to happen, but they did. The inflated price of a CD must also be remembered. 14.99 for a CD? Outrageous but accepted. Up to a point. A point we reached when we collectively discovered file sharing. The small stores in my town are still around while the Towers of Virgins collapsed long ago. ALL of them with the exception of an amazing, gigantic one that still mainly dealt in vinyl. (RIP) And I think they will continue to survive. Why? Because they cater to people who LOVE music, truly. People like ME. People who actually both download AND pay for music. People who refuse to spend 13 to 15 bucks on something without listening to the whole friggen thing first. We do not JUST download music using file sharing. We also read blogs, download artist-provided sample mp3s, stream albums from artist’s websites. And yes, we still buy CDs. From stores. In person. In fact, other than Michael Jackson, Taylor Swift, Susan Boyle and Beatles fans, we may be the ONLY ones still buying music.
Do you truly think people turned on the major labels only when they started suing little girls and grandmas? Please, read up a bit. They were already hated for charging 15 bucks for something that cost about 4 bucks to create(yep.. even recording, mastering,marketing,paying the artist a share, etc), manufacture and ship. In the 80s, you could still get a new release album on a blue light special for $5.99 . Maybe $7.99 on sale if you went to a smaller store. And you can bet they still made money. Tons of it, in fact. The truth is, I can make a CD for 10 cents. I can ship it for a buck. I can pay myself 5 dollars a CD and spend about 50 cents on packaging. That’s about $6.60 . So I could tack on an extra 3 bucks and 39 cents to make it $9.99 ending in a HUGE amount of money made per CD. If *I* can do it that cheap, the majors certainly can because they can buy in larger quantities than I ever could. There’s absolutely no excuse for the price of a physical CD, let alone the hyper-inflated digital download. This isn’t new hatred and distrust. Ask Tom Petty, he sued ’em for it. This goes waaaaay back.
So could you maybe give us a break and think next time you decide to blame us for the stupid behavior of an entire industry and its supporting industries?
* Some of his peers believe he makes large assumptions based on less than traditional scientific method. But in my opinion, his work is the best so far on the study of mega-successful people. I can imagine it would be about as easy to herd them into double-blind groups as it is to do the same with cats. With huge egos and odd bahavi… oh I guess that pretty much describes most cats I’ve met.