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Music Savaged By The Average Beast

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for November 5, 2002

by Sean Carolan

Sunday's Los Angeles Times reported that, according to a ComScore Networks analysis, online music sales are down 25 percent. The RIAA reports that sales of music are down seven percent over the first half of the year.
Both, of course, cite that numerous factors figure into this, but take great pains to blame file sharing and CD-ROM burning. As opposed to, say, the sagging economy and the drying-up of disposable cash.
Still, it's interesting that the drop in online sales is so much larger than the drop in overall shipments. It's also interesting that music sales were no greater than they were when Napster, the easiest to use and most brazen (and arrogant) of the file sharing networks, was alive and well. This is incongruent to the music industry's argument - the new millenium's answer to "Home Taping Is Killing Music" - and so it doesn't often get cited when they try to round up the usual suspects for any given set of woes.
The real problem might actually be that simple, just not exactly that.
Let's think for a moment about Napster. It had twenty million people on its network in the U.S. alone. When AOL had twenty million customers, they were already thought of by the Internet cognoscenti as a "lowest common denominator" service. Napster, with almost as many users, aspired to that lowest-common-denominator-ness. It wasn't a baroque, difficult to set up widget; it was easy to use.
I'll pause here to acknowledge the fact that Napster really didn't have the right to do what they did. Sure, everyone was putting (and to a large degree still puts) their content on the web for free; the difference is, those people owned their content - Napster just owned a file sharing network. That doesn't make the music industry's eventual moves any smarter.
Granny could have used it (and probably did on occasion.) In fact, Granny (or Joe Sixpack, or whatever you'd like to tag the anonymous customer who's less impressed with the fact that technology exists than with the idea that it can be made to do stuff that makes them happy) struggled for a metaphor and wound up figuring that this was a new kind of radio. After all, they'd been listening to the radio for free, for years. And they could always tape a song off the radio if they liked it - this just made it easier.
Twenty million people is a lot of people. Record companies usually pay a lot of money to get their music in front of twenty million people. Instead, they paid a lot of money to get Napster shut down.
And twenty million people were introduced to the true face of the record industry.
People who never once thought about the RIAA now saw them, for the first time, really, as the puppet masters behind the demise of a service that they really liked.
Twenty million people now don't like the RIAA.
Twenty million people now have very little interest in keeping the RIAA in business.
Twenty million people each tell twenty friends why they feel that way.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
And sales are only down twenty-five percent?
Today's Election Day. I sincerely hope you'll be going out to vote, and I hope you'll do so in a way that reminds our elected leaders that they need to earn our vote.
For the music industry, Election Day happens every time a potential customer wanders into a shop, or browses an online store. There's a twist, though: the public "votes" just as effectively when they don't buy, as when they do. Perhaps they, too, need to learn that they must earn our vote.

©2002 Sean Carolan

All material ©2001-2014 Sean Carolan, except as noted.


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