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Music

To: Big Five Re: Download Sites

David Medsker and Neil Soiseth

In a perfect world, the Big Five would all go to bed one night and wake up to find the Internet had been destroyed while they were sleeping. What they don't realize is that the Internet is their salvation.

You'd be hard pressed to find a bigger music fan, a truer music geek, than me (save, perhaps, my PopMatters colleague Will Harris, who is Lord of all Pop Boys). In college, one guy asked who was coming over for a party. When my name was mentioned, he said, "Dave, sitting-on-the-floor-playing-with-tapes Dave?" A dead perfect description if ever there was one. Any time he'd seen me at our friend's apartment, I was sitting in front of the stereo, taking full advantage of their dual cassette deck, turntable and CD player. If there is one thing I can do really well, it's mix tapes. It should go on my headstone. David Medsker. Born 1968. Died 2053. Made great mix tapes.

These days, of course, I make CDs. I love my CD burner, though it probably doesn't love me much. I make CDs by the pound, and in the process have helped scores of bands sell records. My friend Tony, after receiving a mix disc from me, went out and bought the albums from every single band that I put on that disc, and in some cases bought the entire catalog of a band. (You're welcome, Guster) The Recording Industry Association of America should be paying me referral fees for the bands that I've promoted on their behalf. Instead, they think I'm a thief and part of the reason the music business is in so much trouble.

The music industry, after a good 10-year run of smashing success, a period which spawned the most absurd out-of-the-box sales in history, is in a recession. There are many reasons for this. The main reason is the obvious one: the entire economy is in a recession. The first thing that dries up is disposable income, and what's more disposable than pop music? Absolutely nothing. Say it again.

However, there is a second, far more significant reason for the music industry's woes: they've been riding on artificial profits for years. A good chunk of the sales have been from the conversion of old albums and cassettes to CD, a market that is finally starting to dry up. This leaves the majors in the position of thriving solely on the sales of new releases. And they can't do it.

This is why the music execs are acting like a cornered, wounded animal. The music industry, for the first time ever, is at the mercy of the consumers. They got fat on the convenient timing of cassettes and CD's, which led to consumers buying an upgraded version of an old title over and over again. But since nothing has come along to replace CDs, the back-catalog well is finally starting to run dry. The sensible course of action by the labels would be to scale back expectations regarding how many copies sold is an acceptable amount and cultivate a more respectful relationship with music buyers. However, they have gone the other way; they've slashed their rosters and gone for high promotion and saturation of prefab bands. It's a pure boom-bust approach to music retailing, treating the consumer as someone to be duped and milked until the sap has caught on, and which point they move on to something else. That more and more consumers aren't playing the game is apparently the consumer's fault.

And with fault, comes blame. The Big Five (Sony, Time Warner, Universal, BMG, EMI) and the RIAA have conveniently blamed free file-sharing servers, and the supposed criminals who use them, as the source of all of their problems. Not the falloff from the back catalog sales. Not the skyrocketing price of a CD (twenty dollars, jeesh). Not the public's weariness with teen pop and nü-metal. (Those horses have been dead for a while, guys) No, no, no, it's none of these things, but rather the filesharing heathen. This statement by the industry is, for all intents and purposes, a declaration of war on their revenue stream. To be certain, this is an innovative business model, but it's not exactly the brightest.

The majors will tell you that since Napster and its brethren started popping up on the Internet like a digital Whack-a-Mole, the industry has suffered huge losses. Therefore, the file servers must be to blame. They were so convincing with their case that they even lured Lars Ulrich into committing career suicide by taking a stand against Napster. Look at how this is hurting the artists, they said.

Preposterous, say I. This issue, despite how the RIAA is spinning it to the media, is not about lost money or artistic integrity. The latter is laughable given how the industry treats its artists. The former is a smokescreen, or a false ordering of importance. The issue is about power and control. How else can you explain their desire to copy-protect their CDs so that they won't work on anything that uses PC technology? (For the record, that includes DVD players.)

This would at least explain their pathetic, half-hearted attempts at building their own pay download sites, which they say are meant to counter the free sites but are so poorly assembled that no one in their right minds would use them. Some of the sites contain coding so strict the user can do nothing with the song but play it on the PC. It could be argued that the Big Five doesn't really want pay download sites to succeed in the first place. The music industry has staunchly opposed nearly every new product that's ever hit the market, from blank tapes and CDs to even listening stations. They would rather dupe people into buying a record and hating it than give them the chance to sample it and make a more informed decision. Anything that gives people the luxury of hearing new music for free frightens them, because they can't control (again, that word, control) the buying habits of the consumers nearly as much as they'd like to.

In a perfect world, the Big Five would all go to bed one night and wake up to find the Internet had been destroyed while they were sleeping. What they don't realize is that the Internet is their salvation. I have a plan for a pay download site that not only makes economic sense, but also can make them more money than they ever imagined. The best part is, it makes everyone, from the labels to the fans to the artists, happy.

Everything should be on one site. Imagine if record stores were set up the way that the Big Five download systems currently exists.

"Hi, I'd like to buy the new White Stripes record." "Sorry, this is the Capitol/EMI store. You'll have to try the V2 store two miles down the road."

Ridiculous, isn't it? Yet that's exactly what the Big Five expect their online consumers to do, to set up accounts with each label individually and hit multiple web sites to find their favorite music. Does the average soccer mom know which label her daughter's favorite boy band of the week is on? Of course not. If you really want this to work, make it easier. Put everything in one site, or set up mirror sites that are easy to find and follow. No one cares if Warners doesn't get along with EMI. This must be easy for the consumer in order for it to work. One-stop shopping is a must.

In fact, the store is already set up for you, and it's called eMusic. (eMusic is owned by Universal Records) For a monthly fee, consumers can download as many MP3 files as they want. There's even a setup where you can download an entire album with one click. They have lots of variety too, from John Lee Hooker to Apples in Stereo to Rosemary Clooney. Which brings me to my next point.

Everything should be on that one site. Attention, Big Five: Did you see the kinds of songs that were available (and immensely popular) on Napster? Things that you don't sell anymore. Get a clue. Put everything you've ever released in your label's history up for sale. Make every album track, extended dance mix, live recording, B-side -- everything -- available for download. You'll start making money on things you had long discarded as being unprofitable. Imagine a world where no album, maxi-single or EP is out of print. That is the potential that the Internet is offering you.

It may sound like a daunting project, but disk space is cheap, and when you start seeing money come in for a download of Arthur Baker's remix of the Rolling Stones' "Too Much Blood", or for the Boomtown Rats' 1985 album In the Long Grass (something I've been trying to track down for years) it will all start to make sense. This also helps the thousands of artists who no longer receive any royalties because their entire body of work is out of print.

I would be happy to offer my services in converting the out of print CDs I own to MP3 for the cause. Actually, that brings up another idea. Print a list of albums you'd like to make available, things that used to be in print but have since been deleted, and offer anyone who has a CD copy of that album some kind of reward (cash, credit, whatever) for converting those albums to MP3 and uploading them to a site for you. The whole thing could be finished in a week, because the fans would line up to help out.

Also, consider the added benefit of crippling the bootleg market by putting everything back in print. Those CDs of rare and unreleased recordings that typically go for $20 (I spent $20 on a very cheaply made Duran Duran B-sides disc, because the stuff simply wasn't available anywhere else) would be worthless. And you, not the bootleggers, would be getting the money. It's the right thing to do. Do it.

In fact, the best way to rope in the fans who are going to download the most music anyway is to start with the deleted items. I have two Boomtown Rats CDs that routinely fetch $40 and up on eBay. If there's that kind of market for it, you can bet that they would get more than a few downloads at eMusic. Sony, step up to the plate here. Send eMusic the rights to the Boomtown Rats catalog, and see what happens. I personally guarantee downloads of at least three of their albums, provided you also do one small but extremely important thing.

For God's sake, make it affordable. One web site wants its potential customers to cough up $3.49 for the right to download the Lenny Kravitz song "Dig In". To purchase Lenny's Greatest Hits online, $18.98. Puh-leeze. That's more than it costs to buy the album in a store, and at least with the CD version we would get the CD, jewel case, artwork, and perhaps a video or two. What incentive do we have to download music if you're going to charge us more and give us less?

We all know how much CD's really cost to make. No song is worth more than a buck, and ideally they should cost about 75 cents apiece. No album should cost more than seven or eight bucks. After all, what are you giving us besides the music? There's no artwork, no raw materials, just a file on my computer. How on earth is that worth the same amount as the CD in a store? eMusic currently charges as little as $10 a month for unlimited downloads (previously, to download an entire album cost $8.99, and individual songs cost 99 cents), so don't say that it can't be done for that little. Clearly, it can.

Price plans should be flexible. People who buy an album every other month should be able to buy music on a per-album or per-song basis. Those who choose an unlimited download plan should pay no more than $20 a month. (That figure is assuming all labels and the entire catalogs are available. Otherwise, leave it at $10 a month) Remember, even the hardcore downloaders are still going to buy CD's of the bands they love, since CD's sound better than MP3s. So don't think of this $20 a month as the only money you'll see from the music geeks. Think of it more as guaranteed money. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

Remember, if you want this to work, you have to give the public a reason to want to do it. So far, you're making paying for downloaded music as unattractive as possible. $3.49 for an MP3 file? Pure arrogance. Drop the price, and we'll talk. We're not opposed to paying, we're just opposed to paying too much, and right now, you're charging way, way too much.

Make it simple. Just stick with MP3 as the standard file type, please. Don't put any of that special coding garbage on any of the files. If I've paid to download a song, what I do with it from that point on is really my business, Internet copyright rules be damned. Don't punish the many (consumers) over the acts of the few (bootleggers). Most consumers are honest and will do the right thing with these songs. Besides, the key to music is its portability. To attempt to hold music hostage on someone's PC is just ridiculous. After all, there are entire industries built around music's portability. To restrict it to a PC or hard code a CD so that it won't play on a computer? My God, that's a trick out of Microsoft's book.

Again, look at eMusic's system. They use .mp3 files because they actually trust their consumers. And as a result, the consumers respect them back. Amazing what results a company can get when they don't treat their customers like criminals in waiting.

If the music industry isn't careful, they may see themselves in a position not unlike Major League Baseball. If they continue on their path to put piracy protection coding on CDs while refusing to give music fans a sensible pay download option, the fans, who are like the players union with less money, are going to strike. In fact, many of the recent announcements the majors have made with regard to music prices, copyright protection and free servers are not unlike the stream of idiotic statements emanating from commissioner Bud Selig's mouth on a daily basis.

What the majors need to realize is that fans, even the geekiest of the music geeks, have a choice here. Music is not a consumer staple. I don't need it the way I need milk, bread, or Jack Daniels. If they continue on their quest to make music unplayable, I will strike. And they will notice, because I buy a lot of CDs.

It's time for the majors to come to their senses. After spending years telling the people what they want, it's time to actually listen to what the people want and give it to them. They have the answer to all of their problems, and just like it always has been, it's sitting in their vaults.

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