The Carrot, the Stick and the Music Industry

Desperate times call for desperate measures. When you add a desperate industry to the mix, you get this past crazy week.

First, a major record label, Universal, said it would do the obvious — and obviously smart — thing: lower prices.

CD prices, after all, were supposed to plunge once they became the standard way of delivering music. But as anyone who’s been buying music in CD format since 1986 knows, if prices have done anything, they’ve inched surreptitiously higher.

Universal’s price cut makes so much sense that it’s almost a surprise the label thought of it. Industry heavyweights have seemed incapable of making a smart move at almost every juncture in their war with digital music pirates. The price-cutting decision is so logical — narrow the cost gap, make piracy less appealing from an economic perspective — that it took several years to happen.

Why Stop There?

But this is a war, and the record labels aren’t about to fight on a single front. They can only lower prices so far, after all, so the dangled carrot of cheaper CDs is being backed up with the sharp, pointy, jagged stick of legal action.

Yes, a bunch of people answered the doorbell this week to find a process server waiting on the other side — no doubt making them wish, for the first time in their lives, for an annoying traveling salesman instead. The labels, which had rattled more sabers than both President Bushes combined, had finally followed through on their threats.

It wasn’t exactly shock and awe. After all, 261 lawsuits is just a drop in the bucket. But it’s a strategic foray, one scripted to include some of the city’s largest media markets — New York, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco — and a seemingly carefully chosen cross-section of the population, including a Yale professor to go along with some college students.

Chill Out

The potential fallout from the lawsuits is staggering, with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) claims amounting to millions of dollars in total — millions of dollars the defendants almost certainly don’t have. One family has reportedly already settled its case, and the RIAA Web site has been flooded with traffic, at least some of it from people scrambling to get in on the association’s new amnesty program.

So much for the idea that the music industry couldn’t sue everyone. It seems determined to at least make a symbolic effort, which is all that really matters.

But none of this covers up the bottom line. The music industry is stalled in the breakdown lane. Technology zoomed past a while ago, and all the industry could manage to do was throw a lasso around it and try to drag itself along, face-first, on the pavement. Lawsuits aren’t going to fix the problem. In fact, the money that will be spent on lawyers would be far better spent making more music available online for legitimate download.

The music industry isn’t healing itself. It’s hurting its own customers, the very hands that feed it. Any short-term benefits will wear off long before the sting goes away.


  • The way I figure it, it’s karmic justice.
    Think of all of those great recording artists who never saw a dime of the profits from their recordings. Some of them died on skid row. Some of them become so impoverished they were forced to steal, like in the case of the Supremes. (If Diana Ross hadn’t married the head of her record company, she would have been back in the ghetto, too)
    I think they have it coming to them. Record label companies have made it next to impossible to hear great music anymore. It’s all about demographics. Ya dig?
    There’s no demographics on the internet. The only downside to downloading music on the net is that the artists don’t get paid anything for your use. So that puts the person who downloads the music in the same category as the evil record labels. …The musicians and artists are the ones who are really getting scr****. The money should go directly to them. It keeps everything honest. And the cream will rise, as soon as the industry isn’t about marketing and advertising. (I mean, look at the crap that’s being released these days, pandering to a demographical equation strictly for the profit of the record label.) Who needs to be told what is good?
    Technology will liberate artists. Free the slaves. Feed the people. The time is at hand. The global free-market is here now. The revolution has begun. "and if the dam breaks open many years too soon, and if there is no room upon the hill. and if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes….I’ll see YOU on the dark side of the moon…"
    Rock & Roll will never die…. :~)

    • recording industry no doubt is behind all of this, cuz *oh my* they are losing money. Well boo hoo, you’ve been taking us to the cleaners for years forcing us to buy albums for high cost only to get (if we are lucky) maybe 2 or 3 songs we actually like or want.
      Technology has given us an awesome tool (internet/mp3’s/burner) to now be fair to everyone.
      Sell them on the net charge/per song. but the difference "WE" choose what we want to pay for in a song and that’s it.
      Artist could sell their own music themselves over the net and get the profit themselves oh gosh, the music industry wouldn’t like that now would they…
      well it’s coming, so look out

  • I think the music industry needs to look in the mirror. They are to blame for the current crisis. Past and Present greed to gain the quick buck has left them in the here and now. What do they expect? They push the one hit wonders, try to make a quick buck. How many bands over the last 5 years have actually put out more than 2 or 3 quality albums? I know I don’t want to pay $13-16 for most of the stuff that is being pumped out there. I also think a large part of burning is not due to cost, but the ease of access. Every record label should have legit places to access their artist. Sure I would pay to use their sites. I personally hate file sharing. It’s a security risk, if nothing else. The music industry needs to get off their butts and do some work. I find it hard to believe that the industry is losing money because of just burning. I think it is just easier for them to cover up the other mistakes that have lost them money.

  • The Polyphonic Spree were dropped by their label for not selling enough albums – they ‘only’ sold about 80,000. Their record label did not make enough money from the band, and i doubt the band made any money from the record label.
    On the other hand, a band with a few hundred dollars of decent computer equipment can make and sell an album online. If they can sell 5000 @$10 each in a year that would be $50,000 going straight to the band.
    I hope the big labels are finished, or at least go into a half-life of owning and selling their back catalogue, because it is depressing how destructive to music they are and how little development in music there has been over the last decade compared to each of the previous 4 decades of modern music.

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