Friday, March 07, 2008

Public Attitudes on File Sharing

Jon Healey wrote a couple days ago on a conversation he had with a professor-friend of his, who reported some findings of an informal survey of his music business students:
[T]his year's respondents said they download music regularly through file-sharing networks and other unauthorized sources, while buying music from iTunes intermittently (64% said they did so 1-4 times per month, with 5% saying more than 5 times). They were also asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how nervous they were about being punished for illegal downloading, with 1 being "not concerned" and 7 being "extremely concerned." Two-thirds answered with a 1 (43%) or a 2 (24%). Only 4% put down a 5 or 6, and none went all the way to 7.
Yesterday, I was speaking with a friend of mine who is a very successful producer. We were talking about the status of the industry - the wrongheadedness of the major labels and publishers, the lack of a *real* voice for songwriters and recording artists, and what profound and irreversible damage that can be caused by seemingly well-intentioned kids like these students.

This producer and I unfortunately had come to the same conclusion without previously knowing it. If filesharing continues to go unchecked then one of two things will happen:

(1) Artists will continue to record the music that they want but will no longer be able to do it professionally, because it will no longer be economically viable to record an album (no matter how good digital technology may become, a basement tape will always sound like a basement tape).

(2) Artists will have to get their recording income from a private source, meaning that they will continue to record music, but it'll be for McDonald's, Exxon, Coca-Cola, Wal-Mart, or whatever other corporation needs a little ditty to go with its latest feel-good commercial. It was bad enough with major labels recording mediocre songs because they'd sell a lot of records. Imagine how bad it'd be if the bulk of recorded music were recorded to sell a product?

File-sharing and free media proponents might think this is crazy but I guaran-damn-tee you its so real its scary. We're already heading there - the 360 deals are just a precursor, where the creative recording process is getting mixed up with merchandising and the like. Artists are already relying more and more on alternative income streams (always did, really, just now the labels are suckling on the same tit). Recording budgets are going down and who's to say that, once labels have a solid 360 deal, they stop tying the term to album cycles and start focusing on terms of years, meaning the artist could be tied to a deal but no longer releasing albums?

Pointing to public consumption patterns, especially those of students, as an indication of the way of the future, or of what the market must have, or of what is right or of what is inevitable, can be characterized as the tail wagging the dog. It is also extremely reminiscent of the cocaine craze of the '70s. Everybody knew it was illegal; everybody knew it was a drug. They got a guilty pleasure out of it; it made them feel good; they thought it was harmless. They saw no reason why they shouldn't be able to do it. And there were a LOT of people doing it, rather openly, too.

This went on for several years before it became clear that cocaine was not harmless. It cost a lot of people their lives. For many of those who survived, it robbed them of their families, their careers, and/or their life savings. What started out as a helluva lot of fun and totally socially acceptable turned out to be devastating.

We're falling into the same trap with music, albeit on a different level and with different injuries. The act is filesharing music - just like bumping a line every now and then, it's really no big deal. However, the more music a person shares does not empty his pocket, it empties that of the artist. The long-term impact is that those who don't pay for music feel that they are entitled to get music for free. The more people who engage in this activity, the fewer there are to pay for music.

Rather than the widespread personal destruction caused by cocaine, the destruction from filesharing is social and impacts everyone. If left unchecked, filehsaring will destroy the recorded music industry and leave us with the options identified above. By that time, it will be too late.

This is also not unlike our addiction to oil and other natural resources. We use and use and use without concern for the consequences. People willingly blind themselves to the truth because it is inconvenient, because they like the way things are and don't want to change them.

Just because everybody is doing it doesn't make it right. I doubt anyone would honestly say that we should throw open the doors to all of our natural resources and exploit them until they're gone . . . while it would be convenient for all of us today, it's not right. We have a duty to protect our resources, and have a duty to come up with ways to produce cleaner, renewable energy.

I don't know the solution to the music industry woes. However, I know that the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality is downright stupid. I also think that anyone who advocates for free recorded music is foolish and better damn-well have a brilliant idea for what we should do the day after. The problem is that so many of these people are spectators, yelling out from the sidelines with instructions on how to do things; some have risen to the level of commentators. However, none of these people must take responsibility for what happens if people follow their suggestions and things go tragically wrong. We'll all be royally and irreversibly screwed while the talking heads will have moved on to the next new thing, leaving artists holding the bag.