Monday, March 7, 2011

2001: Copy Protection for Whom?

So, according to the General Theory of the Crap Cycle, rock music goes through periodic bursts of innovation, followed by periods of stagnation. And as I mentioned when I reposted it, the problem with my theory is that after the four messiahs who kicked off each cycle (Elvis in '54, Beatles in '64, Pistols in '77, Nirvana in '93) I wasn't sure when the next cycle began... or ended.

I considered whether Eminem might have been the figure in question, given his sales figures over the past decade. Now I'm wondering if it wasn't a person at all. Maybe Napster was the messiah?

Each of the four previous messiahs shook up the music industry, as well as the culture of music. Napster certainly did the former, but the latter, not so much. It did change the relationships between musicians and their fans - and between both camps and the music industry. For smaller bands, file-sharing proved to be a potent promotional tool. Established bands, like Metallica, saw it as a revenue drain. But either way, it contributed to a steep decline in CD sales.

iTunes showed that millions of users were willing to pay for downloads, but only after Napster had been stomped into submission, while millions of users switched to other peer-to-peer networks. There was a moment when Napster could have been legitimized, but it passed, and we'll never know what might have been.

It's as if the four or five branches of the One Big Global Record Company had all gotten together to figure out the best way to annoy their customers. So they came up with the musical equivalent of New Coke: copy-protected CDs.

The BMG branch test-marketed a bunch of them in Europe a few months ago, and had to back off after floods of complaints from consumers who couldn't play the new discs in their home players. Meanwhile songs from a copy-protected Charley Pride CD showed up online about fifteen minutes after it was released. Who knew Charley Pride fans were so plugged in?

Turns out you don't even need your ten-year-old geek cousin to figure out a way around this. Instead of copying the tracks off your computer's CD drive, just run a line from your CD player to your computer. Record the sound, save it, encode it. Then add the track to the mix CD that you have every legal right to make in the first place.

Anything that can be played can be copied. The geniuses at the OBGRC want to get around this by adding errors and distortion to the music, which will show up only after its copied. Even if this works, and it doesn't add irritating pops and clicks to your favorite song in the first place, it will mainly serve to piss off the people who pay for CDs.

Don't tell me that after dutifully shelling out my hard-earned cash for fourteen R.E.M. discs, I don't have the right to put together my own personal best-of disc. And never mind Napster and its clones; I can get legal MP3s all over the net, free samples from those same record companies who don't want me making my own MP3s at home. Do they expect me to shell out my hard-earned bucks for a portable player and not be able to play what I want on them?

Meanwhile, of course, every last scrap of musical history down to Enrico Caruso's lost demos will be on the net until the end of time. So it looks like we're being given a disincentive to actually pay for our albums. Particularly if, just like genetically altered Frankenfoods, these new discs won't be labeled for what they are. "We don't want to influence the listener's potential experience," says one industry weasel.

The owners of intellectual property copyrights are complaining of a slump in record sales, which they blame on file-sharing. Hello? The whole global economy is in a slump, and entertainment products are the first thing people cut back on. If you want to boost sales, do what any good capitalist does - cut your prices. I guarantee you you'll move more units. But if you're going to stop someone from emailing their friends a sample track from some great new artist that nobody's ever heard of, you're just going to cut off your nose to spite your face.

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