by Richard Menta 6/16/00
As much as the music industry wants to bury services like Napster and My.Mp3.com, and as hard as the courts and US government wants to fairly apply its laws while not killing the golden goose, the truth is neither can keep up with the technology.
The reason is, while it may take millions to launch a company, hire a staff and market a product, it only takes one 19 year old kid a couple of months to build the application in the first place.
The world is filled with millions of 17, 19 and 21 year olds with the necessary programming skills, no day job yet, and a passion to create. Think of the Internet as the great egalitarian environment where multi-billion dollar conglomerates are regularly out-maneuvered by the efforts of individuals.
Make that collective pool of individuals angry and something is bound to happen. The American music industry has done that. Not only have their legal suits against the Diamond Rio and Napster served as the best advertisement for MP3, it has given impetus to the Net youth to develop new tools that are far more difficult to stop.
In the UK, two programmers using the handles Xor and RandomDan (anonymity is handy here) have built another new MP3 file sharing system that they claim will be almost impossible to shut down. Like previous Napster spawn Gnutella, the software does not use a central server so the legal position that the RIAA is trying to use to shut down Napster doesn't apply. Not that it matters anyway because by design this new breed of Swapware is too elusive to easily pin down.
They even named the program Metallicaster in protest to Metallica's separate suit against Napster. Add this to the list with Freenet, SwapStation, ScourExchange, and FileSwap - and realize that none of these programs existed five months ago - and you get the idea.
Of course, the real force behind all of this momentum is the consumer, a grass roots collection of the music industry's own customers who for years have felt they got the short end of the deal. The industry's recent settlement with the government over price fixing didn't exactly help the major label's credibility either, nor did Edgar Bronfman's recent rant to fight the "battle" until the bitter end. It is ironic that the actions of the industry have been THE major force driving consumers to the Net for their tunes.
A recent study by Melodicom Partner revealed that the quality of the industry's product is another issue that has registered with the masses. Simply put, customers are tired of paying for a 13 song CD and only getting 2 or 3 decent songs for their hard earned buck. And this is coming from the same kids who plunked down seventeen bucks to buy a zillion Brittany Spears copies last week! When your diehard fans are complaining, finger pointing towards digital music only goes so far.
Interesting note: 72% of survey respondents said that they would actually prefer to buy an album if it was full of great songs, not mediocre filler. Respondents felt the sound quality of a CD would be better than a downloaded sound file.
That last sentence in particular confirms a theory that I wrote a few months back on the "perceived" value of digital files titled Is MP3 Music a Perishable Product? Sure downloaded music is free, but in the end many users prefer that hard tangible goods (CD's) and are very willing to pay for it. If the music industry would stop the legal pyrotechnics and go with the flow, they would probably find that MP3 files are the most efficient promotional tool that ever hit the entertainment world.
But then, that is the whole point of this article, going with the flow. Such epiphanies take a long time for conglomerates and seasoned industries are always resistant to change, especially when they make billions the way things are.
The industry can sue Napster, MP3.com, MP3board, and all of the portable player manufacturers they can find to gain control of the Net music industry, even before they take time to fully understand it. They can even win a few of these suits as they did with MP3.com. But they can't sue the customer and that is who really built the Net through the likes of Xor and RandomDan, and Shawn Fanning and Justin Frankel and others all the way to Netscape's Mark Andreesen.
They can't even catch them because there is always another to take their place. So maybe it's time the big five take a step back and change their strategy to one that embraces, rather than tries to kill, the evolution.
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