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Sounding Off: The State Of Music Today

Marius Kahan
By Marius Kahan

It's always the music industry that gets blamed when people bemoan the state of music today; but maybe they shouldn't be so eager to point the finger...

When people complain about the state of popular music today, they generally blame the industry itself. But there's a largely overlooked factor that's contributed significantly to the current situation: copyright theft. In the last five to 10 years, copyright theft has evolved from the relatively minor issue of domestic cassette-copying into something altogether more pernicious, which substantially affects the funding of new music.

Sounding Off November 2002The two main abuses of intellectual property rights today occur through the Internet and large-scale CD piracy — problems that couldn't even have been dreamt about in the '60s and '70s. So this abuse is the fault of Napster and mass duplicating operations, then? Well, yes and no. The real fault lies with just about everybody I meet — and very possibly even you.

For starters, let's point the finger at anybody who downloads music illegally and accepts the inherent limitations of MP3 compression to save a few quid. Just a thousand downloads per day from the estimated 340 illegal file-sharing sites worldwide would run to over 10 million downloads per month. People insist that Napster was an organisation of radical freedom fighters liberating the music industry, but Napster's interest lay purely in making millions of dollars from advertising. It was run by guys who realised they could draw advertisers to their site by effectively giving away something that didn't belong to them.

However, it's not just Internet users: there are people who buy bootleg products from dodgy street traders, and piracy goes on unchecked all over the world. Walk around any Italian city, for example, and every 20 yards there's some guy on the pavement selling CDs of current hits and classic albums in simple plastic sleeves. Frankly, it sickens me to see well-heeled tourists handing over their cash to these people — don't they stop to consider who really profits from this trade? Organised crime syndicates from Eastern Europe in the main, that's who. UK street markets are just as bad, but authorities everywhere seem completely disinterested.

Finally, there are those people who borrow CDs by their favourite artists and clone them to CD-R — a practice that's impossible to police. Morally, none of these three activities is any different from walking into a record shop and nicking a stack of CDs, yet most people justify copyright theft by telling themselves that the massive profits reaped on a £15.99 CD mean that the record companies can afford it. Wrong, on two counts. First, it's the retailers who take by far the largest cut on album sales (that's how tiny specialist shops can afford to undercut the big chains). And second, with millions of sales lost annually, income is plummeting. Research indicates that 59 percent of those who download music illegally go on to buy it on CD. But if you think that's encouraging, consider that it also means 41 percent of people will not buy the legitimate product.

In the first quarter of 2002, single sales in the USA were down by more than 83 percent (19.2 million units) compared with the same period in 1999. Even allowing for the declining popularity of singles, this is unprecedented. The industry has the jitters, and the record companies' only crime is to have followed normal business practice by targeting a malleable and lucrative market sector. Unfortunately, this has yielded a profit-driven industry with formulaic pop written, played and produced by the cream of the session scene. The result is a bit like processed cheese: it's fine if that's all you've ever tasted, but if you're used to the real thing you'll spit out the processed stuff in disgust.

So if you participate in illegal file-sharing, CD copying or buying pirated product, in a very real way you're responsible for the state of the industry. People need to understand that every illegal download, home-copied CD-R or pirated album takes money from the pocket of an artist they claim to care about. Elton and Britney may survive, but lesser-known acts are being dropped because of poor sales, while new artists aren't even getting signed. Record companies are not, and never were, charities that exist solely to support artistic endeavour, and people's selfish short-sightedness is making it increasingly difficult for good music to reach an audience.

Back in the halcyon days of vinyl and cassette it seemed that every inner sleeve carried the 'cassette and crossbones' logo, accompanied by the dire warning "Home Recording Is Killing Music", which pretty much said it all. But in those days, the gulf in quality between a fresh piece of vinyl and a compact cassette helped motivate people to go legit. That's a moot point now that the digital genie's out of the bottle, of course — if anything's going to change, people are going to have to accept that if something's worth having, it's worth paying for. And at present, those who disregard copyright law are rapidly eroding that option for themselves and everybody else.

About The Author

Marius Kahan is a well-funky electric violinist and composer who deserves worldwide acclaim, but for reasons he cannot fathom only seems to get playlisted in Eastern Europe.

Published November 2002