Apr 5 2012

Musicians vs. Industry?

A boatload of artists have decided to join together to promote The Pirate Bay, a well-known file sharing website that has recently come under attack by industry organizations such as the RIAA and the MPAA.

Recent proposed legislation to fight perceived piracy on websites such as The Pirate Bay and YouTube have met with strong opposition by the Internet, but this is the first time that artists have gathered in support of a service known for coordinating the illegal distribution of copyrighted retail products.

Personally, I’m all for this kind of thing. The RIAA and MPAA do a terrible job of representing their clients, nearly always siding with the labels, producers and distributors instead of the artists.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m not sympathetic. Recording labels have a vital purpose: to aid in the advertisement, sale and distribution of creative property.  Any band that thinks they can get by without a label and a distributor are in for what could be a very long and difficult road to whatever fame they feel they deserve.

So if the entire recording industry walked away from their labels tomorrow, and the RIAA found themselves without a single client, what would happen?  What would bands have to do to get their material distributed and sold?

Internet: To the Rescue!

The Internet is an obvious choice for a new band.  But without the threat of big, scary, corporate legal retribution, a band’s fans will quickly discover that illegally downloading an album is much cheaper and frequently more convenient than buying it at any cost.  Big-name entertainers like Nine Inch Nails and Louis C.K. have cached in on their tech-savvy target audience with great success.  Even without anti-piracy tools like digital rights management, NIN and Louis C.K. were able to digitally distribute their content to their fans and turn a significant profit, partially because their devoted fans were so serious about supporting them.  But a band without nation-wide recognition and an army of crazed fans can’t pull this off.  And if they tried, their theft to sale ratio would be far less favorable than Louis C.K.’s.

There’s good news, though.  In the case of music and other forms of entertainment, production cost is dropping quickly.  You no longer need a dedicated sound engineer with six years of college and a dozen years of experience to set up your microphones; there’s software for that now.  So creating a pop rock album only requires a few grand in one-time setup costs, much of which is mitigated with each successive release.  Depending on the genre, initial investments can drop far lower.  And if scheduling studio time is no longer a factor, and bands self-produce, they may find themselves able to produce an astonishing amount of material in a very short amount of time.

The Decentralization of Consumption

What I’m saying is that labels are increasingly becoming less relevant as the consumer becomes more empowered.  We can find music produced by unsigned artists in completely different countries and share it with our friends.  Entertainers can cater to audiences they’ve never seen in real life.  SOPA and PIPA are just the final desperate swipes from a once-powerful animal as it nears its final hours.  Consumer-level technology grows, and in its wake it leaves the bodies of both big businesses like the RIAA and small businesses like recording studios.  But it also enables artists and consumers alike, and the decentralization of our economy may threaten the livelihoods of very powerful people.

Change is inevitable and any attempt to resist it is transparently useless, like trying to hold a palm-full of sand in an ever-increasing wind.  The Pirate Bay is not an issue of theft, or morality.  This is cultural evolution, and you don’t get to complain when the masses you empower chose to use that power against you.