The End of the Napster Revolution

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and big name musicians like Metallica are so intent on fighting bloody skirmishes in the Internet music wars, they haven’t gotten the latest news flash: The revolution is over, folks, and technology won.

It doesn’t matter that copyright laws are being violated. It doesn’t matter that profits are being lost. Whether Napster dies is irrelevant. None of the arguments over ethics or law are of any consequence, because the outcome is no longer at issue.

The practice of sharing digital files over the Internet is like a big, burly locomotive hauling a very long train down a handsomely maintained track — and the music industry is a gnat clinging to the caboose, dragging its feet and throwing off tiny little gnat-sized sparks.

Napster may be waving the rebel flag, but even with more than 20 million soldiers, the company is just the front line of the digital download army. If Napster’s central server is laid to rest, its users will simply retreat to the jungle and share music using peer-to-peer file-swapping software like Gnutella and its clones.

There is no way to determine how many tech-savvy guerrilla downloaders are already doing just that — no way to find them, and no way to stop them.

Crying Over Spilled Milk

Back in the 1970s, when audiocassette recorders hit the mainstream market, the big music companies raised a hue and cry. “Home taping is killing the record industry!” they wailed. Then, as now, they raised impassioned arguments in favor of protecting the rights of the artists who create music for the world to enjoy.

It is only when the record companies think their profits are in jeopardy that they pretend to give a flying-choose-your-own-noun for the artists, however. The contracts that transfer copyrights from musicians to record labels have historically been very raw deals for the talent.

The vast majority of musicians make little or no money on CD sales. And the sad fact is that if the record labels were able to snuff out digital downloading with one sweep of a wizard’s wand, the artists would continue to occupy their current positions on the soles of the music companies’ boots.

But it doesn’t matter anymore, because magic tricks are not going to reverse the technological tide.

Gnashing Teeth, Wringing Hands

Perhaps the record companies should continue beating their heads against a brick wall for a while (serves them right after abusing their artists all these years). Or they could take a few deep breaths, find acceptance in their hearts, and — given the circumstances they find themselves in — figure out some smart new ways to make money.

They could start by realizing that the enemies they have been fighting so aggressively could be transformed into customers if they were treated with a little respect. Is it any wonder that college students have so enthusiastically embraced file-swapping with barely a twinge of conscience?

Most of them feel they already gave at the office, having shelled out $18 (US$) a pop for CDs since they were old enough to earn an allowance — CDs that invariably contained only one track they really wanted to hear. They rose against oppression.

Nevertheless, even the revolutionaries are capable of reasonable behavior. All the record companies have to do to win them over is one small thing: Give them their money’s worth.

Why Defeat Is Not the End

The record companies are not in trouble — they just don’t like being pushed out of the driver’s seat. Recent studies show that CD sales have actually increased as the digital downloading phenomenon has caught on. Research also indicates that music lovers who swap files are more likely to purchase CDs than the average citizen. College students are not buying less — they are listening more.

Record companies should take advantage of the burgeoning enthusiasm generated by the Net and join the party with some innovative value-added plans. Web subscription services designed to provide members with access to large, well-organized catalogues of MP3 files could attract a clientele that doesn’t want to spend a lot of time searching for favorite tracks and dealing with variable download speeds.

The services could also establish special fan clubs entitling members to discounts on concert tickets and delivering exclusive content about their favorite artists.

Some customers will always go to the music store to purchase their CDs. Why not encourage them by giving them real value for their money? The record companies could make more double-track CDs available — like the old 45 records — at bargain prices. They could make complete CD albums more attractive by enlarging the package — say to the size of a vinyl record album — and including more art, photographs, album notes, and so forth.

If the record labels would expend more energy developing new ideas — instead of holding their breath until they get their way — they would find that the Internet has expanded the possibilities for innovative marketing and distribution of music. What they have not figured out yet is that even though technology has won the war, it was never the enemy.

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