Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Thoughts on File-Sharing and its Fallout

I remember well the eighties, music-wise. The music industry itself was getting used to the megastar who sold millions and millions of copies and went on year-long tours to rapturous audiences. The underground was developing, and college stations and stores were creating the stars that would become the true household words in the next generation (REM, U2, etc.). And millions of cassettes were being bought and taped on.

The record industry and its bitch (The RIAA) tried to get people to stop the taping. They put a skull-and-crossbones type picture on the record sleeves (instead of lyrics) and trumpeted "Home Taping Is Killing Music!" Nobody believed it, of course; some punk groups put out cassettes with blank B-sides, complete with the comment "Home Taping is killing the record industry. Keep up the good work."

Then came the coup-de-grace: a study by -- you guessed it -- the RIAA showed that the home tapers were the buyers of music. Indeed, they found a relationship between the level of taping and the level of music purchase.

Surprise, surprise -- I knew that! Simply put, the cassette collections were always the inferior collections, with albums you didn't care to buy and cuts you liked from albums you didn't. Not only that, but often if you liked the songs on the tape you went on to buy the album(s) they were on.

So when Napster came along, I was all for it. Mind you I couldn't take advantage of it; but I saw it as a plus for music lovers.

So what happened?

Some say the record stores kept raising their prices above what sane people would pay for their CDs. Some say the recording companies cranked out crappier and crappier records, eating up the genres as they went. Others pointed to DVDs and video games eating up the entertainment dollars that once went to records. Further blame can be cast on the radio, which had tried for the so-called holy grail of "one nation, one playlist, one taste" and failed miserably (Note that "The Jack" radio format is a continuation of this rot, as it's an oldies format that tries too hard to be cool).

However, Napster and its latter-day cousins are as guilty as all of them -- maybe put together.

Probably the one thing I miss greatly is the new record stores that used to dot every College downtown and many other places. Used to be I could walk into the Wherehouse or Tower in East Lansing and look through the selection. There'd be stuff to listen to, so I could hear the songs on the record. And if a song on side "B" or a cover caught my attention, I'd buy the CD.

Those record stores aren't there anymore. And the Bookstore/Record store doesn't fit either, as the focus is on books with a smaller selection CDs in the back. And while used record stores are wonderful, they're only as good and the new record stores that are nearby.

This has caused the impovershment of mainstream music. With nothing hip or unusual being bought, the people running the music companies have been forced to latch onto teenieboppers, or lame imitations of older songs. Hence Britney Spears and the American Idol stars beginning to clutter our airwaves. Why not: since that's what's selling, why should they go out and try out ten people who don't know about when there's someone who's just like someone else you know sells well?

And during this time when the record stores were going out of business, the college students were happily Napstering themselves to music collector's nirvana. They had the high speed connections, they had the free time, and they were using everything to their advantage.

And down went the record stores. Thanks to Napster.

Admittedly there's other ways to get stuff. The used record stores have done an admirable job in filling in the spaces left by the old record stores. The internet stores (Amazon and others) offer a larger selection than the record stores ever could.

But there's something about coming into a record store, picking over a seemingly random choice of albums, meeting with others to exchange opinions, hearing a song so wonderful you can't leave without owning it, talking with an employee or owner whose dedicated their life to music, and buying something that will benefit the band directly and in the future. ALL of the above could only happen in a new record store.

And the music industry's change could be deeper than a mere change from downloading to buying. As with Cassettes, much of my mp3 collection that I have I wouldn't go out of my way to buy. And most of what I have in mp3 format I own (or owned). And with Video Games taking the place in the heart that music once owned, there's more to the change than a mere forcing of buying. If I were the record industry I'd do what I could to regain the love of my customers, not focus on sueing the fans into legalized slavery and keep earning the disdain and hatred they presently deserve.

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