Misguided music executives bite the fans that feed them


July 20, 2003



True musical fandom is a measure of devotion unlike any other in the entertainment world.

As a teenager, I remember standing in line at midnight to be among the first to buy Pink Floyd's epic "The Wall." I had already taped the entire double album when New York radio station WNEW-FM played it on a special a few weeks earlier. But I still had to own it--to hold it in my hands, to savor the vinyl, to study the lyrics and to lose myself in Gerald Scarfe's artwork. The same was true for every Floyd fan I knew.

The recording industry's campaign to crack down on file-swapping and downloading is nothing less than a spiteful slap in the face to its most dedicated customers--the hardcore fans who've always been the backbone of the industry, buying and supporting the music they love regardless of the vagaries of passing trends or fads.

The Recording Industry Association of America, well-funded lobbyists for the five global corporations that control 85 percent of the music business, insist that their new targets--college kids who use their universities' high-speed Internet lines to fill their hard drives with free music--are the moral equivalent of shoplifters.

They argue that this "thievery" deprives musicians of money that's rightfully theirs (never mind the fact that few artists ever see royalties from major-label releases). They say it drives prices up for everyone else (even though the industry itself has long raised prices over the objections of artists, retailers and consumers), and it will ultimately "kill" the music business (or at least minimize the executives' fat annual bonuses).

This argument is as specious as the similar beef in the early '80s about cassettes ("Home Taping is Killing Music!" was the slogan back then), or the long-since discredited notion that videotapes would "destroy" Hollywood (in fact, video added a second lucrative market to the movie industry, which is as healthy as it's ever been). And it's disproved by a considerable amount of anecdotal and scientific evidence.

By now, many Chicago music fans are familiar with the story of Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot." When the best album of the band's career was rejected in July 2001 by its formerly "artist-friendly" label, Reprise, the group turned the situation around by letting fans hear the music for free on the Net, thereby building excitement and eventually securing a better deal with a new label.

"Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" went on to sell more than 365,000 copies, double the number of the group's previous release. When it was officially issued in stores last April, it debuted at No. 13 on Billboard's Top 200 albums chart--Wilco's highest position ever--with only minimal radio play and zero support from MTV or VH1.

"It has just continually amazed me that the record companies have done everything they can to make it more and more difficult for people to hear their music," said Ken Waagner, Wilco's Internet consultant and the former owner of Chicago's independent Hit It! Records.

"It's just so insane when you look at the kind of money that they spent historically trying to get records played on the radio, positioned in stores and written about. Here you have this opportunity, and they look at it as something to fear."

Though it garnered minimal coverage in the United States, a recent study by British researchers concluded that music fans who download songs actually buy more albums than other consumers. Market researchers Music Programming Ltd. surveyed 500 "heavy downloaders" and found that 87% bought the music after hearing it online.

"Downloading is actually a 'try before you buy' tool for a significant amount of people," an MPL spokesman told the BBC. "It allows people to sample new music and decide whether or not to buy it. It is not necessarily a replacement for purchase."

While it's true that album sales have been declining--in 2002, the industry shipped 33.5 million copies of the year's 10 best-selling discs, barely half the number it shipped in 2000--the corporations would rather target downloading than accept the blame for their own mistakes.

What is really at fault here? Overpriced CDs (discs that cost pennies to manufacture often list at more than $21, while my worn copy of "The Wall" bares a faded $6.99 price tag). The elimination of inexpensive cassette and CD singles. A lot of lousy product. And obscene amounts of marketing money spent on glossy, superficial novelty acts that hit big and then disappear, rather than the old model of investing in and nurturing artists that grow over long careers.

Downloading isn't killing the music industry. The music industry is killing the music industry. And good riddance to it.

The quicker the current business model dies, the sooner a new one might emerge. Hopefully it will give artists the respect they deserve, instead of treating them as willing dupes. And maybe it will even view fans as people who should be rewarded rather than being branded as criminals.