21st Century Digital War: Recording Companies vs File Sharing

Written by azhar.

Face the fact: The music industry is lost in the Internet revolution. Record companies are spending more time filing lawsuits against music fans than promoting album sales. Music lovers who download music online via file sharing programs are now viewed as Internet delinquents. Their actions are regarded as subversive of the traditional music industry.

Album sales dropped for a seventh consecutive year in 2006, but a significant increase in digital downloads provided a lifeline for the music industry. The iTunes store, run by Apple Inc., is one of the leading players in the digital music market. Online music stores carry two fundamental benefits for consumers. Firstly, consumers are able to choose and buy only the track(s) that they prefer from the album. Secondly, music fans can purchase music in the comfort of their homes.

However, despite all the advantages offered to the consumers above, music fans - especially the teenagers - are still downloading songs from P2P (peer-to-peer) programs such as Limewire and BitTorrent. The main reason why the illegal activity still subsists today is due to many reasons, ranging from the inability for teenagers to possess a credit card to the common belief that illegal download is an acceptable practice in the society. Nevertheless, the most vital reason may be the advancement in information technology and the Internet which has made it much more easier and 'safer' for teenagers to download and share songs illegally.

The earliest form of copyright infringement in the music industry is taping, whereby people record music directly from the radio. In the past, they would use tape recorders to do the job. The audio quality was low when played back. Now, music listeners are able to record the entire song in perfect quality, by connecting a modern microphone to another computer. The recorded track then undergoes a series of 'technical improvements' using sound-tweaking programs available widely in the market. The end product can then be stored in mp3s or iPods.

Instant Messaging has also evolved since the past few years. In the past, users can only engage in a conversation with their peers online. Now, they can share files via Instant Messaging programs such as Windows Live Messenger. This feature has made it easier and perhaps 'safer' for teenagers to share their latest music favourites with their friends. Well, all you need to do is to ask your friend to record a song from YouTube and send it to you straightaway. It is that simple.

Another suspect responsible for the murder of the album sales is the emergence of many softwares aimed at protecting the privacy of P2P users. Among the most popular is PeerGuardian, a software which blocks all traffic coming from suspicious IP addresses. The software is free to download and proven very effective. With the development in the Internet technology, it is no wonder teenagers are not at all intimidated by the penalty of illegal downloading. It is so easy to circumvent the law that the rise of Internet pirates seems inevitable.

Instead of attempting to squeeze music sharing to extinction, record labels should make use of its wild popularity. They should turn file sharing into a boon and bridge the rift with the millions of music lovers out there. It is about time we start believing that music sharing does not hurt the artist; perhaps, it can help make him or her more successful.

Popular hip hop star, 50 cent, explained, “The concerts are crowded and the industry must understand that they have to manage all the 360 degrees around an artist. They, (the industry), have to maximize their income from concerts and merchandise. It is the only way they can get their marketing money back.”

It makes sense. P2P (peer-to-peer) programs allow complete freedom for its users to upload and share music to millions of other users worldwide. The popularity of the artist and his songs will sky-rocket as a result of this. File sharing can expand an artist's fan base and stretch his target listeners, tapping into the adult as well as youthful market. The surge in fame will translate into a higher or even sold out figures for both his concerts as well as line of merchandise.

Nonetheless, there is a limitation to the point above. If music is authorized to be spread freely in the market, this can lead a major unemployment crisis in the music industry. Experienced recording producers, engineers and studio managers may lose their jobs. Furthermore, file sharing may adversely affect consumers. A fall in demand for CD sales will force record companies to incur huge losses. The companies have no choice but to pass the higher costs to consumers in the form of higher prices. Thus, file sharing does not benefit legitimate buyers.

There are other solutions to clear up the mess. In France, a small group of lawmakers wanted to adjust an anti-piracy law that would establish a so-called global license fee that - once paid - would permit Internet users to download unlimited digital music and films from the Internet for personal use.

"Artists currently get no money from peer-to-peer sharing, and with this fee at least they would get some," said Aziz Ridouan, a 17-year old high school student who has fought for Internet rights as president of the Association of Audiosurfers. "If the government and industry attack downloaders aggressively, we will just go underground with encryption and all chance of revenue will be lost."

The global license fee appears to be a prospective solution to counter the problem of illegal downloading or file sharing. It benefits the society as a whole: producers as well as consumers. Consumers can enjoy a wide variety of high quality tracks of their favourite artists and upload them in their mp3s or iPods legally. They are no longer blacklisted and labelled as Internet criminals. Meanwhile, record companies can also benefit through the establishment of the global license fee as a source of revenue. This will in turn encourage them to sign new artists apart from producing more songs by current stars.

Another answer to the issue is to treat music as a piece of art as it is. Consumers should be granted rights to place a value on the music - like how they place a bid on art paintings during auctions - and donate the money to the artist. This idea seem revolutionary but it has been experimented by English alternative rock band, Radiohead, who invited their fans to decide how much they want to pay for their new album. The model was successful, spurring other bands such as Oasis (who is not attached to any record label) to follow in their footsteps. It broke the convention that music always comes with a fixed price tag; music now has it own value.

Imposing a new or stiffer law to combat file sharing should be the last resort. It only acts as a measure to deter potential music pirates. It is just not pragmatic to use legislation as a solution to the problem. The police can only identify the culprit by tracing his or her IP address. This poses another potential complication - what if someone else uses your IP address to download music?

English soul and R&B singer-songwriter, Joss Stone, said, "The only part about music that I dislike is the business that is attached to it. Now, if music is free, then there is no business, there is just music. So, I like it, I think that we should share.”

Perhaps it's about time we free music from its chains.


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