Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Three Cheers for Empirical Study

Harvard Gazette: File sharing may boost CD sales

It's almost astounding in its simplicity, but someone actually decided to sit down and look at some data. Surprise! The results are in direct contradiction to what record industry experts have been saying for years. This study shows that there is absolutely no evidence to support the claims that file sharing is hurting CD sales, and in some instances it may in fact be helping it.

I'm not ashamed to say that I'm a music pirate. I've been doing it for years, and I feel no guilt whatsoever. Technically it's not legal, but that's something of a formality in my mind. I never felt I was hurting the artist by doing it, because I have certain personal guidelines about what and how much I download. This study shows that a lot of people share similar guidelines, and that what the recording industry has been spewing is generally a load of crap. I've suspected that the whole time; now there's empirical proof.

I can see how the recording industry came to its conclusion. CD sales is a multimillion dollar industry. All of a sudden a lot of its wares were available for free, and it stands to reason that this would hurt sales. When actual sales numbers started dropping, it's a fairly reasonable assumption, on the surface, that piracy is hurting the industry. When you take into account all the factors involved, though, their arguments don't quite hold up.

As I said, I have certain rules I use to guide my downloading habits. I never download entire albums. If I want several different songs from the same album, I just buy the CD. After all, if I like that many songs from it, chances are good that I'll like the whole thing. Basically, what it boils down to is this: any song I download and keep, I was never going to buy it anyway. It just doesn't make sense to pay $15 for a CD that only has one or two good songs on it. So the record industry isn't losing any money on this type of downloading, because they weren't going to make that money anyway.

In fact, I can easily believe that file sharing is good for the record industry, if other people use file sharing the same way I do. If I hear someone talking about an artist they like, I can easily check them out. I download a song or two to see if I like them, I either keep them or move into CD-buying mode. It's that simple. I can't even tell you how many artists I've discovered this way, but it's quite a few.

Of course, the recording industry is blowing off this study, and going on with their pointless lawsuits. Sales are down, and they need a scapegoat, dammit! Never mind the fact that the economy in general is down right now, or that a lot of the music that's coming out right now is just plain awful. ("Shake It Like a Polaroid Picture"? Really? That might be the most inane lyric I've ever heard.) And it doesn't matter that so many of the radio stations in the U.S. are owned by a single huge conglomerate which limits their stations' playlists, which means most listeners have a very narrow exposure to different artists or types of music. Never mind these things. Obviously, CD sales are down because Americans are thieves!

I'll let you in on a secret, too. The record industry can talk all it wants about how stamping out piracy is all about protecting the artists, but it just isn't true. Only the biggest bands get record deals that allow them to make any royalties from album sales. For everyone else, the only money they see from the record deal is the advance. The record industry is looking out for number one. I have no problem with that--they have as much right as anyone to make a profit. It just irritates me that they try to sound altruistic, like they're trying to protect the bands. They're not.

I think things are moving in the right direction with the establishment of online music services which allow you to purchase whole albums or individual songs digitally. It's a nice start. I don't belong to any of those services, though, because right now none of them appeal to me. At this point, they offer files in proprietary formats that you don't have complete freedom over once you purchase them. I don't want that. I want a service which offers a wide variety of songs in regular MP3 format, which I can use however I please once I buy it. I want the freedom to keep it in that format, or burn it to an audio CD, or share with a friend who might like it. After all, it's mine, right? I paid for it; I should be able to use it how I choose.

No comments: