Part one in an occasional series of essays on digital music
There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the digital age and the empowerment of individuals by technology has benefited society in numerous and immeasurable ways. But technology, by its very nature, is also a disrupting force, awarding adopters and leaving behind those resistant to change. It causes us (or at least the smart ones among us) to reevaluate what was once accepted as the norm and form new models with which to go forward. This is illustrated in the 2001 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. One of the most controversial areas of technological change has been in traditional media businesses, in particular, movies and music.
After Napster’s first shot across the bow in 1999, things have never been quite the same. Record companies and the RIAA aligned themselves in a defensive mode against downloaders and the situation escalated quickly into a vitriolic offense. Soon, the RIAA was suing individuals after questionably obtaining IP addresses of suspected violators. So much time and energy has gone into this fight, yet even now, six years later, so little effort has been spent on offering music fans a workable legal alternative.
In this series of essays, we’ll take a look at why music fans feel the way they do, what went wrong for the record companies, and the current state of digital music, including some very unique and successful business models that integrate tightly with technology in order to deliver a richer experience for fans while benefiting artists in ways not available to them in the past.
When I was a teenager, my friends and I used to buy the latest albums, tape them to cassette for listening in our cars and trade them with each other. Taping for personal use is a “fair use”, allowable under copyright law. Trading, well, that was another story but it was generally localized in scope and tedious by nature. The only way to make copies was in real time. This, of course, put a limit on the number of copies you could reasonably make, and the cost of blank media further dampened any larger ambitions you might have had. Record companies knew this was happening but it was so minor that they condoned it by ignoring it. But that all changed with the dawning of the digitization of CDs. Blank media costs and copying time went practically to zero and the killer app appeared in the form of high-speed broadband. Now you were connected to the entire world armed with pristine-quality music and a near instantaneous delivery system.
But what would inspire a music fan to engage in file-sharing of a copyrighted CD with full knowledge that what they are doing is illegal? Is it just the fact that the technology exists and makes it so easy that causes them to break the law? The same downloaders would never even think of walking into a record store to shoplift those same CDs.
I believe that today’s music fans actually feel morally and ethically justified in their illegal actions. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll explain why.