Editorial: Response to RIAA's file sharing case in Boston

I just came across this blog post on Boston.com’s Metro Desk: Defendant’s lawyer puts on a show in illegal downloading case. Globe staff writer, Jonathan Salzman, describes the courtroom antics, he writes, that “Charles Nesson, the flamboyant Harvard Law School professor defending a college student accused of illegally downloading and sharing music online,” has used to make the case that his client is not responsible for copyright infringement. At the time of this post, there were over 40 comments to the original article. I wanted to share my two cents on the subject, which I posted in the comments section earlier tonight. I’ve fixed a few errors and added a few words to this, but it remains pretty much intact from my original comment.

When someone says that music is not a tangible thing, I tend to disagree. When you can take digital bits of information and move them using a USB drive from one computer to another, although it seems as if you’re moving air, you’re actually migrating a process that thousands of man hours went into creating.

Digital music is a “physical” product. When we think of the CD, we think that is the physical product, when in all actuality, it is simply the transport mechanism, not unlike an MP3 device is today. I believe that if I make a song and it is converted into digital format, then it is a product that is my property. If I choose to share that property with others as “open source,” then that’s my choice. If I choose to restrict access to my product, that’s also my choice. The copyright laws in this country protect that choice.

What most people don’t think about is this: One day you download someone’s music file and then place it on your computer. You allow open access to your computer through a file sharing network. Others then come and take and share that file through their computers. All of a sudden, that file has been downloaded a million times, usurping the ability of the content owner to generate revenue based on their production of that music. The next day, you write a blog post about that music, then someone copies your blog post and puts it on a hundred web sites, which they are monetizing with Google’s Adsense program. You get angry and say, “that’s unfair! I wrote that article about that song that I downloaded…for FREE!” And, the cycle continues.

What happens then? How do you generate revenue? Well, most people think today that the creative process is really just a driver for sales of tickets to the live performance and a piece of your life in the form of merchandise and other stuff that people will buy, and therefore support your life. In today’s world, if you’re a musician and you’re not monetizing your life in other ways than just through the sale of your music, then you’re not very entrepreneurial.

Sell the right to have dinner with you and talk about music with one of your most ardent fans. Provide inside access to a recording session and sell the right to be there to a fan. Let that word of mouth about how cool you are translate into more people who are interested in you and then watch that word of mouth, viral marketing strategy take off. Get innovative.

Stop depending on music sales, which were NEVER your bread and butter anyway. The less we sell music, the more we sell access to our world. We’ve always given music to radio and they’ve profited handsomely by only paying ASCAP and BMI, but not the other entities that are arguing they should be paid today. If you want money, go after radio, who play your music and play commercials in between every song, or go after a file sharing networks profits from advertising around your music. But once you start suing your constituency, you tell them they are not valuable to you. That they can be tossed into the cesspool at any time for simply wanting to support the music by freely sharing it unencumbered.

It’s tragic that the major labels continue to sue their way into oblivion. All that money gone to lawyers, when it could have gone back into the business of music and generating new pathways. I can totally understand the desire for control, but haven’t we learned that there will always be leaks? Haven’t we learned that it’s so hard to control human behavior? You can try to kill all the mice in a house, but one always gets away, only to start a new family somewhere else.

There is surely another way to embrace and not destroy your audience. A way to give them what they want, when they want it, and find other ways to profit from their use of your copyright. Look at companies like WordPress. They have found a freemium model of giving away the software, but providing fee based support services around that model.

I know some labels are starting to become more like boutique agencies that are hired by their artists, instead of artists being signed to them. The better they do, the better the artist does and everyone wins in the end. The new paradigm that being a label isn’t really being a product provider, it’s become being a service provider. That’s where the world is headed and these stupid lawsuits are just postponing the inevitable demise of the old model.

If you took all the money and invested it into the service model, which is what Live Nation and Ticketmaster are sort of doing, that could be (a decent) solution. Hire your label, not the other way around. Say, I don’t want to be signed, I want to hire you to be my label and work for me. If they don’t, then you can fire them and move onto another group more to your liking.

There you have it! My take on what ails the industry and a possible other way of looking at what it means to be a recording artist today, and why you have to change they way you think about the label system. The old way is dead. There’s no looking back. The new paradigm is “software as a service.” or SAAS. Giving software away for free and providing services around that. Music companies need to think about how software companies are giving away the product, while providing value on the other end. If WordPress, Movable Type, Jomla!, Drupal, and a ton of other Open Source companies can do it, why can’t we do it in the music business?

by Tony Z.

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