September 5, 2009

The Fuss Over Filesharing -- Though the Recording Industry Association of America finally stopped suing people for sharing music files last October, there is still quite a bit of hysteria over it (Georgetown Independent) and it seems the record companies are still fighting a battle framed in thinking from the last century. They are still so shook up that their projections of massive growth of profits did not pan out. CDs were so cheap to make, they figured they could keep the price high, pocket the extra profits and everything else would just roll along as before, with them making ever increasing amounts of money. Then came MP3s, the technology and the world continued to evolve (what a surprise!) and consumers found their own ways to enjoy music, veering out of the paths created for them by corporate America. The big music industry monoliths have never recovered from this and keep trying to push evolution back to the mid '80s or so. Meanwhile life outside goes on all around them. Corporate bean counters never seem to be able to put themselves outside of their equations to see that life goes its own way and music has its own life, which the corporate world cannot control. Still, all this hysteria is focused on file sharing.

A Harvard Business School study in 2004 showed that file sharing did as much to promote music sales as it did to reduce them. (See also Harvard University Gazette, Washington Post or CNET News.) But the big recording corporations can't shake the feeling that someone is taking something from them and the fuss continues, big corporations flailing futilely against the evolution of technology and culture, but with no effect on the final outcome. (see current news stories on file sharing)

People downloading MP3 files to play a song for themselves is of course a different thing than a crime syndicate making copies of pirated music in order to sell them. The record industry lawsuits seemed to focus on ordinary people sharing files. In the case of downloading for personal use the principle of diminishing returns applies. It is virtually impossible to listen to thousands of files. It takes a few minutes to listen to each one once. So some guy downloads a large number of files and they sit on his hard drive. What is it?

Back in the '70s and '80s people could and did make cassette recordings of any recording on vinyl, cassette or CD they could get their hands on or anything that played over the airwaves. The copies were not as perfect as the copies made with digital recordings. But the standard of high fidelity reproduction at the time was much higher, so the quality of the reproduced sound was often much better than what people listen to with MP3s or CDs today. The fact is, as avant garde composer John Cage pointed out half a century ago, the emphasis has shifted from ownership to use. Who cares about owning anything? All I care about is what I can listen to right now. I have access to more music right now at this moment than I could listen to in years of sitting. I have hundreds of LPs and a turntable, hundreds of cassettes, hundreds of CDs, hundreds of MP3s. I can turn on the radio and in the New York metropolitan area choose from many stations. I can put on Internet radio and tune into an infinite range of music. My cable TV network has Music Choice with maybe another hundred channels of music w/o commercials in a great variety of genres.

When people download a file, they probably want to listen to it at that moment. They may not listen to it again for a long time, or maybe never. If their hard drive or their iPod crash, it is gone. Their "ownership" is moot. Listening to music is not about owning it. It's more like popping a nickel into a juke box and listening to something right now. The music on my iPod Nano would take a week to listen to straight through. I put it on shuffle and listen to a few minutes of it when I have time. It may take a very long time for a particular song to come up. And there are so many other sources of music available to me at any given time.

And yet, people will still buy a CD when it is presented to them in an appealing package, with interesting notes, photos. When you walk up to a Starbucks counter and spend $4 on a cup of coffee, why not pop for a few more bucks and buy the new Creedence CD. You can load it on your iPod, or pop it in a player, or lose it along with the disposable coffee cup and not care. It was an impulse purchase. It satisfied a momentary need and that's the end of it.

It's hard to say how well anyone fully comprehends the world of digital technology that we are now hurtling through. The potentials of the new technologies are far beyond what we now realize. It reminds me of the moment when Edison wired New York City for electricity in order to put up electric lights. He wasn't thinking of electric razors and can openers or phonographs or laptops, and yet those potentials were all there. Marshall McLuhan created conceptual tools for understanding how the media we create in turn transform us profoundly, but it only hints at where it is all going. Meanwhile, the corporate world continues to flail around in its attempts to hold everything together in a constellation that passed 30 years ago. They look so pathetic doing so.

For more on the battle over file sharing, see this article on Putumayo from 2006: "Breathing Life Back into the Record Industry"

-- David Cogswell

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