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Is Downloading MP3s Simply Theft?


I have this image in my head and it won’t let me be. The year is 1984 and it is meeting room in the Woolworth Building -something like the Woolworth Building, like an old time New York building and the heads of the five major labels are behind closed doors like the heads of the Families in “The Godfather” and they are deciding the price structure of music CDs. They’re going back and forth and back and forth in tux’s and smoking cigars with A&R guys emptying ashtrays and getting expresso’s and the curtains are open so there is no artificial light and the colors in the afternoon are dark if not sepia.

There is corruption in the air and omerta in the air and at first the idea is to do the right thing. “Listen,” the bloke from RCA opined. “We’re saving five bucks a CD over an album on manufacturing, let’s lower the price to a tops of $9.99 and we’ll make some friends and we’ll make some bucks.

“Or we can double that rate and since everybody is brain dead and nobody has any options they’ll pay for it.”

And that’s why a CD cost double what an album did even though the price went down by around 25%.

I am suggesting the big record companies fixed the price significantly higher than necessary and they are thieving bastards who colluded together to over charge the American public and deserve what they got when they completely failed to figure out how to sell people the MP3s.
The record companies first ignored the trading on MP3s online and then decided the fans were the enemies and sued them. What the record companies needed to do is something Itunes should do now: get experts in, in the record companies cases experts in pc technology. This was a huge stream of revenue and if they had jumped in they coulda lowered the price of an album to, say $9.99, while not allowing songs to be sold individually and thereby save their business.

Also, they could’ve lowered the price of all CDs to $9.99 and thereby maintain their CD sales.

Instead they sat and whinged.

As we speak, the record companies as we know them are facing extinction and the big new face of the business, folks like Live Nation, are monopolizing musical artists every which way: from recorded work to touring to ticket sales to tee-shirts and when Ticketmaster and Live nation merge that will be the end of that. A certain level of pop groups will reach the big time and everybody else will be paying off the new company for the right to make a living.
 
While it is up to the musician to decide what he wants released and MP3s can take away that desire there is nothing new in that and bootlegs have changed hands for decades sometimes to the benefit of the musician. In 88 Prince’s boot of “The Black Album” saved him from the debacle of “LoveSexy”. Dylan has had another career in self-released boots. Grateful Dead’s entire career as a live band was based upon the swapping of live cassettes.

So the problem of MP3s wasn’t in bootlegs appearances not withstanding.

Even since the advent of casettes people have been taping albums they like and sharing them with friends and it was never considered theft in any serious sense. What was the point of casettes if not to tape things on? And PCs made burning CDs even easier than making cassettes.

So why were MP3s any different?

The main reason is that in trading of music files there isn’t the starting point exchange of money. In file trading at no point does the musician, the record company or the distributor get paid. So the record company, for a small portion of the market true, got zero. This pissed off the record companies (though some musicians saw the potential of huge exposeur for their product) who instead of trying to reach some accomodation with companies like “Kazaa” they went to war with them.

The record companies, despite the price gouging on CDs that lead directly to their demise, deserve to make money. They actually have to make money. At this point, after they crippled KAZAA, they should have taken control of distribution so they could force the sale of albums because it was exactly the difference between 99 cents and $14.99 that has killed them.
But what of the teenager downloading songs off the internet? It may be illegal but is it immoral the way the CD pricing was. Let’s say you have a medium sized artist, Brooke White for instance, she is being seriously hurt if people are downloading her music without paying. If sales are effected too heavily she could lose her contract. Between people paying one or two dollars instead of ten and checking out the entire album and people simply taking her music without being paid Brooke is being hurt.

The problem’s are so huge they are difficult to sort out. Major labels may well be scum but stealing their property is completely unacceptable and if musicians can’t make money, even lots of money, how can they build long term careers. We might have and love all the Los Campesino’s in the world, that still doesn’t mean we don’t crave the U2s and Rolling Stones sometimes. Do we really want all bands to live in a gray, prodding, musical enviroment? We’re not communists, we don’t want to hate the rich because they’re rich. As long as the rich and the famous are enjoying life in that special rarified world we can only glimpse from afar we might one day have the chance to join them, will at least watch them, and often love the music they produce and the sheer excitement and spectacle of the big time rock show: the McCartney at Citifield or the U2 in Berlin.

In killing a revenue stream thru theft you won’t kill music but you will kill the hugeness of music; the way in which popular music is bigger than the people who sing it. And I repeat it is theft and therefore wrong. That isn’t a moral viewpoint, it is a social viewpoint. Laws are there to protect you, if a fifteen year old believes downloading MP3s is alright how can they have clear ideas as to property.

There is a cause and effect here. The Record Companies actions to their customers was repulsive and they are scum for doing it, but does that make it right for us to be like them? Do we want to be like them? Can we think of anything worse?

I know it stinks but we have to pay for MP3s. We shouldn’t steal because we don’t want to be stolen from and whenever a law is broken without retribution you are in danger of being the next victim. Always.

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