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Does downloading hurt the music industry?
Who are the real pirates?

By Nicole Colson | October 15, 2004 | Page 9

THE RECORDING Industry Association of America (RIAA) has declared war. "No black flags with skull and crossbones," reads a statement on the organization's Web site. "Today's pirates operate not on the high seas but on the Internet, in illegal CD factories, distribution centers and on the street."

Since last September, the RIAA has brought civil lawsuits against more than 5,400 people that it accuses of downloading music using peer-to-peer file-sharing services such as Kazaa, LimeWire and eDonkey. In most cases, the RIAA has offered to "settle" for between $2,000 and $5,000--amounts designed to make it impossible for most people to challenge the lawsuits in court (since lawyers' fees would likely run thousands of dollars more.)

The RIAA insists that downloaders have no one to blame but themselves--and even got their friends in the House of Representatives to pass a law recently allowing for criminal penalties, including jail time, for those who participate in downloading.

The RIAA's "zero-tolerance" policies have targeted people like 12-year-old Brianna LaHara--whose single mother was forced to cough up $2,000 to the RIAA after Brianna downloaded songs like "If You're Happy and You Know It." More frequently, the RIAA's lawsuits have picked on college students downloading at campus computer facilities.

"Stealing is still illegal, unethical, and all too frequent in today's digital age," says the RIAA, which claims to be "protecting" artists' profits. What garbage. The RIAA is a bloated multibillion-dollar industry group with huge financial and political pull--and does not represent artists' interests at all. Only companies like Sony, EMI, UMG, Time Warner and BMG--which, together, release a staggering 85 percent of all music--can join.

The RIAA blames downloading for allegedly slumping sales, saying that tens of millions of Americans are engaging in it. But take a look at the numbers.

In 1993, CD makers shipped 495 million units and brought in $6.5 billion. By 2000, units shipped had almost doubled to 942.5 million, with $13.2 billion in revenue. Despite the industry's claims that income is slumping, in April, Soundscan, which tracks music purchasing, found that sales had grown by 8 percent over the first quarter of 2003.

Moreover, studies suggest that not only does downloading not hurt music industry sales, but it may actually help them. During a 17-week period in 2002, professors from the Harvard Business School and the University of North Carolina looked at 1.75 million downloads, and compared them to album sales. According to Harvard professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee, "We just couldn't document a negative relationship between file sharing and music sales." In fact, for the most popular albums--the top 25 percent that had more than 600,000 sales--the study found that file sharing actually boosted sales.

The music industry isn't against downloading per se. It's against the idea that fans and artists should be able to step outside of the industry's control.

But while the industry spends billions on marketing boring, talentless drivel, many artists have embraced the Internet as a way to reach out to an entirely new fan base. Alt-country rockers Wilco, for example, released their 2002 hit Yankee Hotel Foxtrot first on the Internet--after the band's label rejected the album for not being "commercially viable." Despite being freely available, it still hit number 13 on the Billboard charts when it was commercially released.

Singer Janis Ian, who had big hits in the 1970s, has said that the Internet has created an entirely new set of fans for her music, and that the RIAA's claims that it is "protecting" musicians' money ring hollow. "I don't pretend to be an expert on intellectual property law, but I do know one thing: If a music industry executive claims I should agree with their agenda because it will make me more money, I put my hand on my wallet...and check it after they leave, just to make sure nothing's missing," Ian said.

If RIAA really wanted to stop the problem of illegal downloading, they would start to show both artists and consumers a little respect. How about cutting the insanely bloated prices of CDs--which haven't seen an industry-wide price cut in the two decades that CDs have been on the market? The industry could also put more efforts into bringing back the concept of a "single"--so that consumers can cheaply explore new music and artists. And corporations could put real money into marketing quality, lesser-known bands--instead of shudder-inducing kiddie pop stars.

Downloading, of course, will never be a solution to the greed of music industry. As long as music is made and sold for profit, music fans and artists will have to contend with the bloated, backwards corporate logic of the industry. As John Flansburgh of alternative band They Might Be Giants commented, "Major labels aren't going away, but until they figure out how to lead the Internet, rather than chase it, the mainstream music scene is destined to just get even duller and safer than it already is."

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