More on Digital Distribution

When power meets resistance, the step that seems most logical, or obvious, or necessary usually entails amplifying the coercive force that power can bring against the resistance. History suggests that this tactic doesn’t succeed well enough to justify its status as “necessary,” or “obvious,” or even “logical.”

I’m not thinking about Iraq, or Star Wars (the plot of the film; in a sense, I am talking about the film as an entity), or Lord of the Rings (ditto); this afternoon, I’m thinking about the recording distribution companies’ escalation of their battle against technology. Recently, the RIAA launched a mind-bogglingly high-stakes lawsuit against, a Russian enterprise that takes advantage of Russian laws to distribute digital music recordings at a cost vastly lower than that required by (for instance) the iTunes Store. As best I understand it — and I’m likely to be missing important elements — Russian law treats the transmission of music recordings over the Net as equivalent to the transmission of music recordings by radio waves; hence, for the equivalent of a customary licensing fee of a few cents, a Russian “broadcaster” can legally “transmit” a digital version of “Stardust” to your hard drive. then charges its subscribers on a per-megabyte scale, so that a lower-quality copy of “Oops, I Did It Again” might cost about fifteen cents (though one could order a higher-quality copy — higher quality of encoding, that is, not an improvement on the music — for proportionately more).

OK, let’s bracket the arguments over whether the peculiar circumstances of the music-performance industry between the invention of the Edison cylinder and the Napster revolution constitute an eternal model of how the financial arrangements for rewarding artists and distributers must be organized. Let’s note several pertinent facts.

First, seems to be wildly successful. Moreover, it’s success hasn’t cost RIAA companies a penny in direct costs — so that (speaking rough equivalences) if the RIAA had offered the same recordings under the same terms as its Russian counterpart, it could have collected all the profits that Allofmp3 has garnered. The RIAA is doing fundamentally the same thing as Allofmp3, but Allofmp3 is doing it for less money, and in a way that responds better to customers’ interests (more flexible recording options, with no intrusive DRM). Yes, there would be server and bandwidth costs, but Allofmp3 faces those costs, too. Yes, there would be issues with how much one pays performers, but that’s always a problem for the music recording industry. My point is that if the RIAA companies offered the same service that Allofmp3 has offered, they would have stood to make a lot of money that they have lost. (Imagine how much business they’d have done if Allofmp3 weren’t less well-known, operating in a country whose security environment makes credit-card transactions a risky proposition.) Note that people are going out of their way to pay for an insecure-but-currently-legal alternative to simply downloading music without paying from the numerous file-sharing networks.

Second, they could have done so for a long time. Allofmp3 started in 2000, according to the Times. Instead, the titans of industry have tried to hold this different business model at bay, and now are trying to quash it in favor of a business model that’s more expensive, less convenient, less flexible, and less suited to the medium in which the business is taking place. It’s as though an early recording company required that one buy a ticket to listen to a record, or sit still in a special auditorium-style seat to an entire unit of music — or as though CDs weren’t allowed to hold more recordings than an LP would, and the recording must be interrupted halfway through.

Third, there’s no earthly reason for restricting this mode of transmission to music recordings. Movies, audiobooks, ebooks, all sorts of media could very simply be sold on the Allofmp3 model. Allofmp3 importantly proves that a significant proportion of possible customers would prefer to buy a recording (at a fair price) than acquire it illegally, and if the Allofmp3 model were legitimized, we have every reason to expect that sales would boom.

Fourth, all of the music enforcers’ energies (and legal expenses) will not stop, but only complicate and redirect users’ interest in obtaining recorded works at a time, a rate, a price, and in a form that they have chosen. The vast sums that the RIAA has spent on fighting file-sharing have only slowed the growth of file-sharing; they have not diminished it, and certainly have not brought it to a stop.

“But what about the artists?” The sole effective bastion behind which the RIAA rallies even modest public support involves the premise that their model alone provides for the well-being of hard-working musicians. By riposte, one might note that the RIAA is the last place one should look for conscientious concern for performers’ well being. Apart from ad industriam challenges, though, we have to un-bracket the question of how we know what constitutes a fair reward for performers’ efforts. To this, we can most forcefully respond that we can’t know in advance how the Allofmp3 model will affect compensation for performers. We can, however, note that internet buzz (fueled by file-sharing) contributes to thriving live-music performance scenes around the world. We can note that Allofmp3 apparently does pay the transmission-licensing fee, the same as if it were a radio station, so artists stand to benefit directly from sales at that rate. We can note that digital distribution at a very low cost increases the likelihood that particular selections will be bought, rather than downloaded from a file-sharing network or ripped from a physical copy of the recording. We can note that music distributers can continue the practice of offering “enhanced” packages, to encourage customers to buy the physical products as well as their digital counterparts. And we can note that as music performers were paid before the advent of recorded music, so we have every reason to expect that they will continue to be paid after the heyday of the LP model of recording sales.

The RIAA, however, would rather fight the future than cooperate with it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *