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Skulls, Bones and Unicorns

File Sharing: Get Over It

November 12th, 2009 by Christopher

RECORDThe whole file-sharing debate can get contentious and personal. We’re told that livelihoods are affected and the music business has been irreparably hurt. And yet it’s impossible to keep up with all the releases. No matter how small or “independent” the label every week or two new albums are being manufactured and distributed with the hope that people will spend their money on them. Your tastes better be selectively genre specific. If you’re into a wide variety of styles you’ll never get anywhere in life given your music habit. It will bankrupt you. I’ve purchased upwards of 5,000 CDs along with the hundreds upon hundreds of cassettes I owned before CDs became the standard. And I’m old enough to have purchased mediums such as vinyl and even 8 track as well. I couldn’t even calculate the amount of money I’ve blown on music over the years.

And I’ve been burned countless times. Not all the purchases I’ve made have been worth the price.

So the furor over file-sharing tends to get lost on me. It’s not that I refuse to be sympathetic with the artists. Look at what I do here. I spend a great deal of my free time actively promoting the works of people I don’t even know. I don’t openly advocate that you obtain this music for free. I want you to buy it, particularly if it’s actually really good. I want you to support the artists that are worthy of financial support. I’m an admitted music junkie and I openly confess that I’ve downloaded albums. I have engaged in what some would have you believe is the single greatest threat to music. If not for this new scourge artists and labels would still be able to support themselves and move out of Mom’s house.

Except that this isn’t a new phenomenon. Not by a long shot.

8TRACKDecades before I participated in file sharing I found a way to hear music for free. We called it “dubbing” back in the day. I would take a friend’s cassette tape and copy it with a dual cassette deck. This way my friend could keep his or her cassette and I would also be able to listen to the album away from him or her. I didn’t do it because I wanted to screw the artist or the label. I didn’t have any sort of malicious intent. I did it because I loved the music and I didn’t have any money to give them. Any way you slice it neither the artist or the label was going to get my cash because there was none for me to give. Yet I was able to hear the music and develop into a “fan.” As a “fan” when I did get money I was able to spend it on concert tickets to see the artist and even buy merchandise. And as an ersatz collector I eventually purchased a copy of the album as well. If you’re as old as I am – or older – you’ll remember the cries in periodicals and on the streets that, “Home taping is killing music!” Note that it most certainly did not. The RIAA even lobbied congress for a high tax on blank cassettes in an effort to turn that shit around and make it work for them.

Later in life I struggled with things like rent and food. As such I couldn’t spend a lot of money on my love. The full price of a CD was exorbitant to my tiny budget. Yet I managed to collect the music I adored while at the same time preventing the artist from receiving any money. Again, this wasn’t out of moral turpitude. I wanted the music but couldn’t afford its steep price. So I would look for the album in the used CD section of my local record store. The prices were often slashed by two thirds and I didn’t feel any guilt over the practice especially since many albums I purchased, either new or used, had a number of songs I just didn’t like. When you spend, say, fifteen dollars on a CD with ten tracks on it that comes to $1.50 a track. After listening to it repeatedly you figure out that, in your estimation, only four tracks are particularly good and when you listen to the CD you skip over all the other tracks. In essence you were screwed out of nine dollars. No, seriously. Many view it as such. You might be able to sell off the CD to a used store but they only give you a couple bucks for it. Any way you look at it you didn’t get your money’s worth. You lost money on the deal.

TAPEThis has been going on for as long as music has been packaged and sold. Hell, the whole debate on property, “intellectual” or otherwise, has been bandied about for a couple hundred years. You should read what Thomas Jefferson had to say about how the rights of the “inventor” shouldn’t be so all-encompassing and relate it back to this “intellectual” property nonsense. So now, along comes the internet and you no longer have to depend on personal friends or disgruntled consumers to provide you with music. You can find it online, download it and “try it before you buy it,” at a higher quality than a dubbed cassette even! Granted, it’s not always of the highest quality but it’s enough to get a good idea if the music is actually worth it. The consumer is no longer the victim of the moderately or occasionally talented artist. Some have even argued that “Creativity depends upon the owners of creativity having less than perfect control”. The fact is the consumer has been the victim of dishonest or unethical business practices within the music industry for decades. An album is released with the fanfare of a couple hit singles. The consumer is led to believe that the album is a real gem based on these singles. The album is purchased and it is discovered that these two singles are the only worthwhile tracks on the whole album. That’s like being tricked into buying a car with a fresh new paint job only to have it die on you a couple hundred miles after you take it home because the engine was never maintained. But just as you can take a prospective auto purchase for a test run and even pull it into a mechanic’s shop for the once-over before purchasing it you can also let an album grow on you before you commit to buying it. That only seems reasonable. It’s fair.

CDHow many albums do you own that are filled with tracks you love? Be honest. And how many CDs contain multiple songs you skip over because they just aren’t as good as some of the others on the album? Obviously the artist felt the songs were good because he or she put them on the album. But the artist was wrong and the “product” is actually inferior. Yet just as there was no malicious intent on the artist’s part to screw the listener/fan out some hard-earned cash the music admirers out there have grown weary of feeling screwed and now have the means to easily rectify the situation. This isn’t an evil, destructive thing. In reality it’s empowering to the avid music listener/consumer. And it should serve as a wake-up call to the artist to be more selective about any album you assemble. It should also be a warning to the labels. If an artist provides you with what you believe is a substandard selection of songs you are certainly well within your right to decline putting it out. If the artist feels you are in error they can always go elsewhere or release their music independently. Music fans now get to judge whether or not a CD has any value before purchasing it. If the value isn’t worth the price in the mind of the consumer then the consumer isn’t going to waste the money. If Cevin Key pulls all his scabs then places them in a plastic baggie and puts it up on ebay it might actually get some bids. Hell, it might sell for a few hundred dollars. You might think that’s crazy but that would be the “worth” of his bag of scabs because someone was willing to pay that price. If someone isn’t willing to pay fifteen dollars for your CD after hearing it then guess what? Your CD ain’t worth fifteen dollars no matter how much you may protest. It simply does not have that level of value in the mind of the consumer.

Music is no longer subject to Caveat Emptor. It’s time for the artists and labels to realize this and either put up or shut up because file sharing isn’t going to go away no matter how much you whine, piss and moan. In fact, the MORE you whine, piss and moan the more you’re going to turn off/alienate your audience. I hear both artists and those running labels/imprints actually putting down their prospective audience, saying that they’re freeloaders and just want everything for free. What a brilliant way to get people to buy from you! [/sarcasm] Even if someone figured out a way to eliminate file sharing completely I’m pretty certain you wouldn’t see any uptick in album sales.

Learn from the past. When Garth Brooks railed against used CD sales cutting into his profits back in the early Nineties his fan base revolted. When Metallica’s Lars Ulrich railed against Napster in the mid-Nineties the fans revolted. So you think that wailing like a bitch about file sharing is somehow going to endear you to your audience? Are you really so daft?! You’re in the wrong business. If anything, file sharing is going to weed out the people who shouldn’t be creating and marketing music. Music will always be there. Music will survive. But if you aren’t capable of adapting to the market you’re going to fail and no amount of whining or scapegoating is going to matter one. goddamn. bit. And the best way to adapt to the new market is to be better at what you do. Be better than everyone else because there are a ridiculous number of people out there doing just what you’re doing and vying for all that money floating around out there.

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There have been studies done which report that file sharing hasn’t had an impact on sales so much as a glut of music being offered coupled by a bad economy where the prices of everything are going up while wages have stagnated. People have had to severely cut back on personal spending. And, quite frankly, there’s been a lot of shitty music being released. Of course people aren’t going to just hand over wads of cash given the reputation the music industry has gained. And I’m not just talking about the larger corporate industry. There’s been plenty of shit shoveled out by the independent labels as well. People are now leery of music. And thanks to technology they’re now able to confirm their fears; that the albums being put out just aren’t worth the price. So while everyone in the business is busy scapegoating in the wrong direction consumers are scoffing at their hubris.

But I’m not just going to sit here and rail at the artists and labels. As with anything there invariably are people who abuse a system. There are people who download everything and buy nothing. I don’t like those people. Just as I don’t like it when I hear people complain about high ticket prices or the prices of shirts at concerts. If you like an artist you should be willing to support the artist. But I’m not going to demonize everyone who has downloaded albums because I understand. These days you want to be sure you’re not spending your money frivolously. In my interview with ESA’s Jamie Blacker I asked him his opinion on file sharing. It angers him. And what he stated was “I think that there are enough sites out there which make available a platform to sample what a band or artist has to offer. With this in mind, there is no excuse for illegal downloading and file sharing.” I would have to respectfully disagree. While some artists will actually put their entire new album up for streaming on MySpace before the release most do not. Whether I visit a band’s webpage, their MySpace, the label’s site, etc. I typically get to hear only a couple tracks and sometimes just friggin’ snippets of tracks. Hey, this is okay if you’re offering songs on a track by track MP3 basis. I’ll just buy those songs. But I’m not going to dive in headlong anymore for an unproven act who has two really damn good songs on their MySpace page and a CD full of filler of which I was not aware. As I stated earlier I’ve been burned too many times. And even if all your music is up online the speakers on my computer aren’t nearly as good as those on my stereo in the other room and you’ve compressed the shit out of the music to post it anyway.

So what prompted this rant? Back when I made a post entitled You’re Killing The Music I got a large number of responses in favor of what I had to say. There was one respondent, however, whose tone stuck in my craw. And one thing in particular that was stated irked me to no end. In response to my suggestion that people should be making mix CDs for their friends to introduce them to new music this individual’s retort was, “YEA! that’s real legal!”

Seriously? That’s what it’s come down to? You are so vociferous in your aim to ensure no one puts one of your songs on a blank CD that you’re going to go after someone innocently trying to build your name and promote your product. THIS is why I’m so angry. Every time I hear someone go off about file sharing it just seems like they don’t get it. They liken it to “stealing” when that seems a questionable metaphor for what’s actually going on especially given the dubious arguments regarding “intellectual property.” If I walk into a store and steal your CD then I’m guilty of stealing it. If I make a rip of the intangible melodies on the physical CD I’m just not convinced that’s stealing because if I like it I buy the CD and if I don’t it gets flushed.

Fortunately there are some artists coming around and recognizing the potential file sharing offers and embracing it rather than continue to fight a battle they’ll never win. That’s called good foresight and great business sense. A couple of these artists have even stated that albums aren’t the way to go for them and they’ll be offering releases on a song-by-song basis. For these particular artists I think that’s a wise decision since their albums did have plenty of filler, sad to say. A number of acts have offered their releases with the “suggested donation” route and came away with more money than they made on their previous CD release. I’m conflicted about the waning influence of CD sales. I like having the physical manifestation of the music, the booklet, the lyrics, the artwork, etc. Although it’s getting really difficult to accommodate the sheer volume of albums I own with the limited space in my home. I don’t think a physical medium like the CD is ever going to disappear completely but I’d say that within the next ten years it’s going to be reduced to the sort of relic status only die hard collectors hold onto, just like with vinyl.

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But musicians won’t be living lavish rock star lifestyles anymore. It’s going to be a struggle to turn a decent profit. My own belief is that this is because the playing field has been leveled and the emperor was finally seen to be wearing no clothes. Frankly, I don’t want my musicians rich. I want them poor, struggling working class types like myself. It makes for better music. Very, very few artists have remained relevant after being removed from the day to day life we all experience with a regular job, family and all the struggles that come from making ends meet. I can’t remember who off the top of my head (I suppose I should do a little research) but someone famous once said that any band only has three good albums in ‘em anyway. Sure there are exceptions to that rule like there are for any other rule but the idea that you should be able to subsist solely on revenue generated by your art seems anathema to the whole idea behind art; relaying the human experience through expression. Rock stars aren’t living the human experience. They exist in a propped up neverland of illusion and pomposity.

The bottom line is that you can’t stop what’s happened. And if your perspective is such that you think you would be selling twice the amount of albums if it weren’t for file sharing I would again have to respectfully disagree. Especially when it comes to Industrial, EBM, or any of the darker, electronic sub-and-microgenres the overall “scene” has shrunk, people are much thriftier these days and there is so much music coming out that it’s almost impossible to keep up. We struggle with it here all the time, trying to maintain the reviews page in a timely manner and occasionally getting buried, literally, by all the new material to review. In spite of all the cries and rants about how file sharing is killing music it’s insane how much new music is constantly being put out there for such a small, niche pool of customers.

A recent independent British poll resulted in an astonishing conclusion: people who regularly download music actually buy more music than anyone else. And you know what? That only makes sense. In these frugal times music junkies like myself, who still devote a good deal of income to this habit, have to be more selective in what we choose to do with our money yet we still spend the money when we find something of value. I do believe that those of us who can’t get enough music – in particular those of us with these less popular genre tastes – are even more loyal and dedicated to supporting the artists we appreciate. So I reject the assertion that it’s file sharing that is making it more difficult for you to sell CDs. In fact there have been many studies done recently, most of which suggested there are so many more factors involved in the perceived decline in sales and if you’re at all business savvy you’ll quit with the pointless scapegoating and start moving forward with some fresh new ideas and strategies.