Ken Eckert Essays


Gypsies, Thieves, and Filesharers
By Ken Eckert

May 2004

In Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave, attention is paid to the concept of economic change as happening in waves, from the first agricultural wave, to the industrial revolution (second wave) to the information society (third wave). Toffler was essentially optimistic in predicting way back in 1979 that our western economy would not only recover from the shock of transition between an industrial society and an information-based one, but would prosper like never before. Although he didn’t foresee such things as FTP music pirates and programs such as Napster and Kazaa, he might have expected that the music industry would fracture and decentralize its power, willingly or unwillingly, in the same way he predicted other industries such as energy and communications would. I would like to talk about these things because most media commentators live in the short run and don’t concern themselves with macro-length trends. Briefly, I believe that file trading and the growth of Internet music is a good thing, and will bring more choice and power to the consumer in the long run. Let’s examine why.

Toffler argued that most people spent their lives at or near home in the agricultural age, in factories in the industrial age, and are now returning home through such measures as flextime and because the problems of energy crisis and infrastructure deterioration are making it necessary. In the same way, the way most people make and consume music has also changed in the last century. One hundred years ago or more, most people who wanted to hear music made their own by playing instruments, or by listening to someone else play music. The amount of actual music was small as it relied on the skill of the musicians and the number of pieces they knew, but it was local and individual to the listener’s tastes all the same.

Recorded music changed all this. By buying wax cylinders, 78s, and then LPs or cassettes, the role of producer and consumer of music became split in two as people no longer had any involvement in the making of music. People certainly continued to play instruments, but to a greater and greater extent most listeners heard their music on radios and home players, and as industrialism brought uniformity to what people ate and used, so music became uniform, as everyone was now listening to the same artists-at the expense of personal individuality. The only way a musician could achieve any measure of fame at all was to record-and recording was under the control of a few oligarchical corporations, in the same way that the means of production of goods and food were also out of the individual’s control. The growth of karaoke attests to the simple fact that many people missed doing their own singing.

The Internet has smashed apart this system in less than ten years. Whereas before musical production was controlled by recording companies who monopolized expensive studios, now the number of home-made recordings has exploded, and previously hissy and muddy tape recordings are now studio-grade digital sessions, mastered with multitrack programs and special digital effects unimaginable even a few years ago. The very word demo tape, condescendingly signifying a home recording unworthy of a studio release, is fading from memory. In the same way, the monopoly record studios had on the distribution of music, through television and radio stations, is fading away as musicians promote and trade their own music online, or give it away for free.

For free-the words some don’t want to hear. The situation becomes complex when money becomes involved. The competition music companies face from ever-improving so-called amateur recordings is minor compared to the slew of filesharers who believe that the music companies impede rather than make possible hearing their favorite artists, and that all music ought to be free to anyone who wants to listen to it, whether it is a homegrown bar band or ABBA. The Mp3 standard was the warning shot. Early FTP sharing programs and Napster were the coming tremors, and the floodgates flew open when Napster was squashed by ligitious agents of the recording industry, possibly one of the dumbest P.R. miscalculations since New Coke. It caused an onslaught of new trading programs such as Morpheus, CuteMX, Kazaa, Soribada, Overnet, and others too numerous to count, and all continually shifting and growing in power, sophistication, speed, and stealth.

Worse, by heavy-handed and well-publicized legal cases of the RIAA group suing elderly professors, children, and indebted college students of their life savings, the RIAA blew away any chances of public sympathy they might have had remaining in North America. A generation of filesharers is presently growing up alienated from a recording industry they see as crooks and bullies. A public sees a large organization as a group of overfed, hidebound monopolists cozying up to and buying government support in backroom deals, and pulling Orwellian stunts to expose and ruin young people who are at most seen as trivial offenders. The mass of the third world, already contemptuous of or culturally unfamiliar with copyright laws, merrily goes on pirating oblivious to western legislation. No industry ever survives by suing its customers into submission, but the RIAA has been an especially slow learner. Any sane mind on its payroll would conclude its efforts have been a complete and utter disaster.

Although the music companies roar as though they are dinosaurs sinking into the tar pits, the smart media companies, and they will surely have different names in the future than they do now, will change their strategies out of survival. There is still money to be made on music. It will be done in three ways. Firstly, it will have to be realized that the means of distribution of music is going to splinter uncontrollably just as all other media outlets are breaking up. CDs themselves are no longer one uniform standard as many don’t even provide the same features as CDs of five years ago do, thanks to copy protection and other half-baked attempts at piracy deterrence. In future, there will be new and various means of listening and storing music rather than the one-size-all strategies of LPs and CDs, such as mp3 or other online formats, or even online storage systems such as virtual jukeboxes and other streaming technologies.

Additionally, some music will be sold online, and once record companies get over their initial greed and desire for punitive actions against their consumers, buying mp3s online will become a viable and profitable means of selling music. Presently, mp3s online cost as much as or even more than their already overpriced physical iterations, and people know it. The same CD which costs pennies to manufacture is sold in the music store for upwards of fifteen dollars. Part of this greed led people to pirate in the first place, and online sales won’t fly if they repeat the same strategy. The first legit online scheme to sell mp3s at a price believed to represent their true value, perhaps around a quarter or a dime a download, will explode in numbers of consumers.

Second, music companies will realize that some lossage is not only invariable, but in fact beneficial as it serves as free advertising. The RIAA fought radio in its early days as it expected that people would not buy records if they could listen for free. The sky did not fall, and people bought more records than ever. The RIAA fought cassette recorders, believing the same thing, and the industry grew in size again. Again, the RIAA is fighting online trading, failing to see that not everyone wants to spend their time fighting spyware and Internet viruses and sorting through flawed downloads. The music industry may indeed be forced to shrink because of filesharing, but it will not disappear. Some people will never again buy a CD - but many others, exposed and turned on to new music they were never allowed to hear on their radio stations, will go out and buy the music - if the CD is not as grossly overpriced as it is now.

Third, the music companies will eventually realize that they cannot be the only game in town. As music production is shifting back to the individual for private consumption, the media companies will, kicking and screaming, come to a new mindset that they will not in the near future monopolize the way people hear their music. Thirty years ago, live concerts were cheap and readily available to the young listener. Large concerts now, held in giant stadiums more acoustically designed for hockey games than music, are overpriced, overamplified, and overproduced. The easy money is being made on wealthy boomers fed on nostalgia acts-but the more difficult task of grooming young listeners to attend big rock concerts has been ignored. And so that age is coming to an end as the medium, in a very Toffler sort of way, splinters and splits into either multi-band rock festivals or intimate club acts. History books will record people paying a hundred dollars to see the Rolling Stones as a sort of period curiosity.

In the same way, in recorded music, the large companies will learn that they cannot simply shut out independent music. It will continue to grow and be distributed online on forums, private pages, and Internet radio. If FM radio is to survive, it will have to ultimately begin to support and play such material. As amateurs also begin to master video production, and it is beginning to happen already, rock video stations will also be forced to adapt or die, by splitting into smaller and more focused ventures broadcasting to local or specialized audiences. Audiences of the future may begin to follow local bands that they can see in person-or they might follow a favorite band from across the world online. Or both.

Just as industrial society can’t go back to basing itself on limited fossil fuels and the soulless efficiency of factory production, the music industry cannot go back to its old model of a small number of companies deciding who will be listened to and at what price. The makers of music are returning home, and some are armed with guitars, dulcimers, and banjos, but others have keyboards and digital effects and sequencers. Some may make live or recorded music as good as any professional musician - itself perhaps a dated term - and others may be as famous in their own community, physical or online.

For a while, the music industries will circle the wagons and attempt to monopolize radio and television for their own increasingly artistically desperate acts, and will vainly try to stamp out music filesharers with legislation and lawsuits. All efforts will not only fail to stem third-world piracy, and to foil increasingly sophisticated program designers, but will also alienate any remaining consumer base the industry might rely on. Out of the ashes will rise cheaper and more varied forms of music distribution, and a vastly wider choice of musical styles and recordings previously unavailable under the old system of music stores with limited inventories and slow stock-ordering systems. More people will be listening to and making music than ever-and the companies that are no longer locked into the system of treating musicians as commodities and customers as passive consumers will make money doing so. It doesn’t sound like such a bad future after all.

Ken Eckert’s music can be heard at http://keneckert.com/wabbit.

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