Rethinking Digital Publishing

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Technology's Rolling Thunder Review: How the Consumer Wants Its Music

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.

A little more than a month ago, the RIAA handed out another 754 lawsuits for illegal downloading. The financial loss from piracy is real, not imagined. And it is widespread. It is estimated that over one third of all the CDs sold in the world last year were pirated, equaling $4.6 billion in loss.

Though we still value our music here, the way we experience it has changed. We treat our music as portable now, files to be shifted from place to place. In fact, the real change in America has been the devaluing of the recorded CD platform and the business structure that surrounds it. Not so good for a record industry, whose main income is based primarily on that revenue stream.

Perhaps the most interesting question of all, is how did the labels let this happen? Certainly, the signs moving in this direction appeared more than a decade before.

Instead of guiding the public into a new digital era, labels have been forced to play a frustrating game of catch up, hoping to keep consumers from listening to music without them. It's a game they'll never completely win. The best they can hope for is an allowable margin of success. Piracy will continue to plague the music business well into the future, until a new medium takes over that bypasses the ability to pirate.

And consumers are not likely to embrace a new medium, unless it provides a substantial amount of value. Once consumers began to manage their own music files, they were not likely to let someone else take that authority from them without something significant in return.

At the end of the day, one must wonder why record labels spent so little money on research and development to assure a secure place in their future. It's rather astonishing when an industry worth $13 billion a year fails to protect itself for the very next generation.

I do not ever think the handing down of lawsuits will solve the problem of illegal downloading. Rather, to solve the problem, you have to first analyze the shift in values. If portable files are indeed the preferred choice for consumers, we need to change the paradigm we've been operating in. CDs are just not as efficient for portability. And we also need to accept that digital files will always be transferable in a micro second. Rather than trying to fight the laws of science and nature, it's time to rethink the whole business model.

I have another solution. Consider an infinite music library online available to all internet subscribers, regardless of which service provider they use. The entrance fee for the library would be folded into everyone's monthly provider fee. Once inside the library, you could download as much music as you like. The service provider would report all downloads to a central governing body, and that body would pay the artists based on the fees collected from all internet subscribers. For consumers, the cost would be invisible, so they would be encouraged to download and experience as much music as they wanted.

Do this and we'll eliminate piracy, illegal downloading and still be able to finance the music marketing machine, so great artists are not left floating in obscurity without good support systems.

If we care about our music, we'll tend the business, to make sure that the artists and their advocates are building a vibrant future for us.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat on KCRW.