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Uploaded: 20 June 2003
Crooks in suits.
Let the playground pirates rule
The music industry's anti-download scare tactics just won't wash
Saturday July 5, 2003
Anyone considering illegally downloading an MP3 file today should think twice. According to a cover article in the current issue of the New Yorker, double-clicking that download button will make you directly responsible for plunging the world back into the 5th century. It posits a doomsday scenario, backed up by research from Microsoft, where download-happy music fans will, any second, cause the appearance of a "vast, illegal, anarchic economy" to rival the legitimate entertainment industry.
"With no visible means of support," it continues solemnly, "many artists would be forced to stop working and a cultural dark age would ensue." The implication seems to be that unless downloading ceases immediately, by this time next year the members of Coldplay will be huddled by a roadside somewhere, their shivering fingers pathetically clutching cardboard signs that read "will play intelligent yet slightly melancholy alt-rock for food".
The New Yorker article is filled with unwittingly hilarious stuff like that: confirmation that, faced with declining sales and spiralling profits, the music industry has gone barking mad. The most compelling evidence of all is theindustry's latest plan to combat internet piracy.
The industry has always been full of bright ideas - eight-track tapes, plastering records with skull and crossbones logos that warned home taping was "killing music", signing Mariah Carey for $80m at precisely the point her records stopped selling, etc - but this one is truly a dazzler. The Recording Industry Association of America has announced that it intends to start filing lawsuits against individual consumers who download MP3 files illegally: according to one legal expert, each downloader could be "sued for several hundred million dollars in damages". The British Phonographic Industry is making similar noises. "Litigation can't be ruled out in this country," the BPI's Sarah Roberts claimed this week.
Back in the States, Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and budding "patriotic songwriter" - his fans include legendary music critic George Bush Snr - has jumped into the debate with exactly the sort of subtlety we've come to expect from rightwing US senators. Hatch thinks that hundred-million-dollar lawsuits are too good for them. "I'm all for destroying their machines," he thundered recently.
He must know that the majority of people involved in downloading music illegally are teenage pop fans. The record companies certainly do, even giving them their own soubriquet, "playground pirates". What better way of giving an ailing business a shot in the arm than by marching a load of 13-year-old Busted fans into court, ruining their families financially, then smashing their computers in front of them? Perhaps the music industry has simply cracked under the mental strain involved in ignoring the proverbial elephant in its living room. No music fan would rather have an MP3 file than an "official" CD.
Even the "playground pirates", who don't care that the sound quality is lousy, would be more interested in something that comes with a cover: what their idol looks like is more important to a teenybopper than the music they make. In an attempt to wheedle as much money as possible out of the youth market, it has concentrated on promoting artists with a turnover speedy even by teeny pop standards.
It has now reached critical mass. Pop artists have become so transient that what's fashionable to own now is the subject of derision in a few months' time, as evidenced by the firefly careers of Hear'Say and One True Voice. Fifteen quid is a lot of money for a teenager to spend on a CD that's going to get you laughed at this time next year. People download MP3s because CDs are too expensive.
For older music fans, the financial reasons for downloading an MP3 are undoubtedly heightened by the sensation of putting one over an industry that has relentlessly screwed its customers for the past 20 years. If the resultant declining sales mean that record labels are forced to prune some of the musical deadwood they spend vast amounts of money trying to foist on an uninterested public, then so much the better.
For the music industry, the whole point of introducing CDs in the early 80s was not to create a more durable format with better sound quality, but to milk as much money out of the public as possible. CDs are cheaper to manufacture than records (they cost 50p each), but sell for more in the shops.
This is not news. Everybody realises that CDs should be cheaper, from people who know the background to teenyboppers who realise their pocket money doesn't stretch that far. The music industry is too stubborn and greedy to do anything about it. Instead, they're happier to propagate lurid scare stories about the onset of a second dark age and haul fans into court: architects of their own destruction, hastening their demise.
· Alexis Petridis is the Guardian's rock critic
Related article: AlterNet
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