Are these questions pragmatic, or are they moral? Even those who claim to have the answers don't know what the online music shakedown will look like. How will we listen once the noise has settled down?
There's a lot of backlash right now against the Recording Industry Association of America, thanks to its spectacularly callous lawsuits against 261 people who listen to music. Among those who paid a settlement last week was 12-year-old Brianna LaHara, a New York City resident who lives in public housing. The lawsuits--and the incredibly unappealing offer of "amnesty" to those listeners willing to come clean--were meant to scare the 60 million people who swap music files on the Internet through KaZaA, Morpheus and the other post-Napster sites.
Can 60 million people be considered criminals for listening to music? Are they a threat to the industry because they use a technology that's far more convenient and cheap than anything the industry has been able to provide to them? Aren't they providing the industry with market research, in a way? Aren't people more likely to buy an album if they can hear it first? Is the RIAA insane?
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org), a San Francisco-based advocacy group that works to preserve civil rights as digital technologies are developed and legislated (often described as the "online ACLU"), has launched a petition against the RIAA. "Rather than working to create a rational, legal means by which its customers can take advantage of file-sharing technology and pay a fair price for the music they love, it has chosen to sue people," reads an EFF statement. Settlement money for the lawsuits will only go to "support a business model that is anything but rational," the organization asserts, adding that "not a single penny" will go to "the artists that the RIAA claims to protect." The petition asks Congress to hold hearings to straighten out copyright law and develop "a legal alternative that preserves file-sharing technology while ensuring that artists are fairly compensated."
So far there have been no reports of Triangle-area students being sued by the RIAA, but the issue of file trading has hit university administrators. This month at UNC-Chapel Hill, professor Paul Jones led a panel titled "The Day the Music Died: File Sharing, MP3's, Law and Ethics," as part of Honor Carolina week, a series of events relating to personal ethics and the university's honor code. Jones, who directs the online library project iBiblio.org, says this is a critical moment to consider all dimensions of the file-sharing problem. "What we're seeing is a breakdown on several fronts, not just because of technology but because law, morality, ethics and markets are not in synch," Jones says.
"The music creators and the music consumers are both totally dissatisfied with the recording industry, the distribution system and the radio system, and even the concert venue system, because the ownership of these things is strongly concentrated. The technology's exacerbated this somewhat."
Like a lot of people, Jones grew up making mix tapes for friends. It was part of the way he enjoyed and shared the music he collected. Now making a mix for a friend is even easier and even more a part of the cultural way we interact with music. But the implications of sharing have changed. "All this is done under the shadow of an increasingly stringent legal regime in which the listeners have had very little voice," he says.
From a listener's point of view, it's easy to say, screw the labels. But how do you support the musicians? "It's very difficult to know how what you do does or does not benefit the creator or the artist," Jones says.
Perhaps the question is less difficult when it comes to local artists. Ross Grady runs the Trianglerock.com Web site, which previews upcoming rock shows, and also moderates the popular alt.music.chapel-hill listserv. He says he's "ambivalent" about peer-to-peer music swapping, but he's emphatic about one thing: The local music scene will exist regardless of what happens to the recording industry. "Frankly, I don't give a crap about the music industry. I just don't think about it most of the time, because 95 percent of the music I've consumed over the past five years has been produced entirely outside of the quote-unquote music industry." Grady says he does listen to music online, but he doesn't have to trade files. He downloads songs directly from the labels' Web sites. "They're giving it away because it's a good promotional tool." It's an especially convenient way to listen to bands coming through town on a tour so Grady can figure out how to describe them to readers of his site. He's got two gigabytes worth of music on his hard drive today, none of it stolen.
"I still buy CDs," he says. "I firmly believe in supporting the artists, but I believe the choice should be left up to the artists as to who they want to be supported [by]."
Even if you accept the notion that the RIAA is a watchdog for musicians recording on the major labels that belong to the association, that doesn't account for most local releases, copies of which are usually burned by the bands themselves on the very CD-R drives that the industry says are used to pirate music.
"The average life span of a band around here is two years, and that's the way it's always been," Grady says. "People go into a studio and record because they're having a good time playing and they want to have something to show for it besides stinky clothes. And if you can burn 100 copies and sell them for $5 and make back half the money you spent recording it, then it's a hobby that goes a little further toward paying for itself."
All that said, Grady is still disturbed by the lack of ethical concern listeners have about file sharing. "I'm sort of appalled by the attitudes I hear expressed by people who think they deserve to have everything handed to them for free."
Local DJ Uzoma Nwosu shares that concern. Back in the late 1990s, he owned a record store on Franklin Street called Lost City, known for outfitting DJs with a diverse selection of music. He remembers arguing with his friends who are Open Source geeks--another tribe he belongs to--about the issue of file trading. He was adamantly against it. "I felt like people didn't care. 'The record labels are making money anyway.' That argument would always infuriate me. I felt like, if you knew the guy who was making this stuff, you would think twice before stealing this stuff."
While Nwosu says he's mellowed out a bit since then, he still wishes people thought more about the issue. "That's why we have all these laws in the second half of the 20th century so the musicians could make money, because they were getting ripped off." Nwosu says he wishes people would obey the law. But he also wishes the laws made more sense. For the most part, though, he doesn't have a lot of sympathy for file traders. "They're just cheap. They're cheap and they don't really value the music."
He agrees that technology makes this tricky. "It used to be content that was in a container. Now we've somehow miraculously gotten rid of the container and the content can go wherever. Things get muddy and somehow we've forgotten things like, what is ownership? Can you own an idea? Can you own this material?"
The old container model is still part of DJ culture, especially for vinyl fetishists. "Ninety-nine percent of all my purchasing is on vinyl because I like the way vinyl sounds, and I can't download that." But even that's changing. Nwosu says a company called Final Scratch has developed a converter that allows DJs to run digital music through a box that hooks up to a blank vinyl disk. The sound quality is just like that of a record, he says, and a turntablist can manipulate the grooves in exactly the same way.
Some people have speculated that years from now, CDs won't be sold anymore and that recorded music will be like an advertisement, with artists making real money from live shows. Others have suggested a sort of tax system, in which users would pay a flat fee to their Internet service provider which would then be distributed to the RIAA or some other industry group, sort of like the licensing fees that radio stations pay now.
"I'm just sort of content to sit and wait for whatever happens to happen," Grady says, "because the bottom line is, the shows I go out to see are still going to happen no matter what. And frankly, if all the CD pressing plants went out of business and people had to actually go out and see bands play live, the world would be a much better place."