Tuesday, July 21, 2009

$2M for 24 songs?

By now anyone not spent the last week in a cave has probably heard that a jury somewhere in the middle of Nowhere (Minnesota?) awarded that modern Mafia, the RIAA, nearly $2 million, to be paid by a working mother of two or four, depending on who you read, because she or her kids downloaded 24 songs on KaZaA. On iTunes, in America, songs go for 99¢ apiece, but I've heard in Europe they go for what amounts to $1.29. I pay 160 Microsoft Points ($2) for songs in Rock Band, but those aren't just songs, they include nine instrument tracks (3 difficulties times 3 instruments), a vocal track with lyrics, a couple facts about the band for the loading screens, and sometimes, custom band gestures for the virtual band on the stage (though Guitar Hero is bigger on this point). Even at $2, 24 songs are only worth $48. 24 into the $1.92 million award means each song got paid for, at the $1 rate, 80,000 times. Given the way file sharing networks work, you're not going to share a song you downloaded 80,000 times. I guess it depends.

Impulse or nonpayment?
The RIAA would like the general public to think that every song downloaded is a sale lost. Just ask yourself, of all the songs you've downloaded, would you have paid a buck for each one if you couldn't get it for free, or are there some you got just because? (Everyone downloads, including the "high and mighty" on Internet forums who say they've never downloaded - 9 times out of 10 those are the biggest pirates, testing the waters or somesuch.) So while every download represents a kind of interest, it doesn't exactly translate to a lost sale. Besides, it's clearly not lost sales they're concerned about, per se - how many sales will they lose with a $1.92 million fine? I'd say all of them; she's not going to be in a position to buy a CD for quite some time, and people all over are calling for boycotts of music from RIAA-represented labels.

From lost sales to sales
The recording industry's biggest challenge right now is converting lost sales, real or imaginary, to real sales that bring in money. CDs alone are pretty useless; since so many people play music on portable devices now, "ripping" a CD is almost too much work, so acquiring digital files is now the new thing, but the early players - mostly iTunes, but others as well - loaded the music with copy protection, which the industry demanded to keep piracy in check. Problem is, CDs remained more convenient - you could still rip a CD. But more cars play CDs than Mp3s, and more home stereos play CDs than Mp3s as well. So, though CDs can be burned from digital audio files, CDs remain relevant. But it's not just a convenient format - music has to be desirable. The packaging is a good place to start. When I was a kid, albums and tapes came with lyrics, and liner notes, and pictures. You can download that stuff, but the original packaging, back then, was special. They don't really do that anymore. All you get now is just the track listing, and that leads some to wonder, "why not just download it?" On top of that, so many people are saying the quality of music is deteriorating. Perhaps the labels should be listening to these prospective customers? But by far, the most ambitious method they've used to get sales, to get people buying music again, is the Rock Band franchise. This "game" lets you play along with music on plastic instruments, and it's available for all gaming consoles, even the last-generation PlayStation 2. It's not very demanding as far as games go and really only amounts to a puzzle game, at best, but it's getting people buying music. We've spent more on songs than we have on both Rock Band and Rock Band 2. We have 332 songs on our Xbox 360's hard drive. More importantly, not one downloadable Rock Band song has been pirated yet. You can pirate the game disc itself, which includes 55 songs (Rock Band) or 84 songs (Rock Band 2), but you need a modified console to do it, and not that many people actually do. And since it came out that the Xbox 360 has a killswitch Microsoft can flip if they catch you modifying that console, it's a really stupid thing to try.

Computer security
In the 1990s, we learned that a computer must have antivirus. In the later part of that decade, anti-spyware became the next big security measure to take. Now, a computer must additionally have PeerGuardian. The developers of PeerGuardian track the RIAA and other anti-filesharing companies and maintain a list of the IP addresses of these computers, and prevent these computers from even seeing your computer. So say you're downloading a song that is hosted by the RIAA. Your filesharing client will basically act like nobody who has the file is actually sharing it, when, in truth, all of the peers are blocked. You can see them but they cannot see you, so they are not going to share with you. Now, once some poor schmuck who isn't using PG downloads the song, you can download from them, and when they catch a C&D letter, you won't get one at all. Welcome to the third tier of computer security: anti-spy. A secure machine must now protect against viruses, malware, and online spies in order to be safe. Because now they don't just want to damage your computer. They don't just want to use your computer as a slave to attack other machines. Now they want to get to you through your computer and attack your economic situation; essentially, they want to rob you through your computer. "Don't they have the right..." No, they don't have the right to take away our Fourth Amendment rights, which protect us from unlawful searches, which is what this amounts to.

What comes next?
It should be obvious to the casual observer that the RIAA is not going to collect $1.92 million from this case. The RIAA traditionally offers a settlement in the neighborhood of $3,000-$5,000 to keep the case from going to trial, and they haven't ruled out closing the door on that offer, even though the case has been decided for much higher. That would stem any argument that the woman would never be able to pay the fine. It would be a huge economical hardship, but not impossible. Still, it would be a huge loss for the RIAA, twofold at that. First, the case has cost them a lot of money already, money they're not going to fully recover regardless. And second, if this woman has to pay anything above her means, she's probably never going to purchase a CD ever again. (Would you?) On top of that, people across the Internet are calling for a boycott of RIAA-backed labels' music. There is really just no easy solution for the RIAA. If they don't go after people for downloading music, more people will do it. The more they do, however, the more people hate them. And if you go onto an Internet forum populated by members of sites like The Pirate Bay and isoHunt and ask them what the RIAA should do, the unanimous answer will sound something like "roll over and die". Of course, if they disbanded tomorrow, and the record companies they represent all folded, the impact on the economy would be severe, as they do employ thousands. And of course, if they go under, who will bring us the popular music we like? Radiohead was able to offer their album "In Rainbows", I believe it is, for "whatever cost you feel like paying, including nothing" because they're already an established act. Millions of unsigned bands have been giving away music on MySpace and through other venues for years; it hasn't gotten them signed, let alone Radiohead-level fame (which, I admit, is quite a ways away from, say, Metallica fame, or better yet, The Beatles fame, but I digress).

In short, the recording industry needs to look at what's working and what isn't. Some things they're doing are effective, such as songs in Rock Band; also, microSD cards for phones which contain full albums in MP3 format. That's brilliant. Services like iTunes and its competitors are a good idea, moreso now that they're using regular MP3s, not copy-protected AAC and WMA files. Financially wrecking otherwise honest Americans is not working, however, and especially in this recession, amounts to both class warfare and economic terrorism. It's that serious. It's $1.92 million serious.

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