The American Record Business - The Cost of Silence

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The American Record Business and the Cost of Silence

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

One of the most fascinating aspects about the American record business is just how poorly this relatively powerful industry communicates with its consumers.

On the creative side, labels spend enormous amounts of money to set up and release recordings each week, hoping to captivate the interest of fans and future fans. But on the business side, the industry has traditionally shunned speaking with consumers about the costs of making and marketing music. There are a couple of reasons for this. First of all, the expenses in creating and releasing a record can be complicated. Every record deal is unique, and there are sizeable differences in the marketing costs for a rap artist, a pop artist, an electronic troupe and a singer songwriter. But perhaps even more importantly, there-s an unspoken puritanical belief in the business that talking about money will somehow unravel the magic and innocence of it. It-s as if discussing reality will taint the future potential. So the industry remains mum. The cost of this silence has become significant. It-s created an extraordinary perception imbalance that has consumers rebelling against an industry.

Consider that now there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of new recordings released each month because duplication and production have become so much more affordable. Though many of these newly released CD's contain over an hour of music, you-d be hard pressed to find an hour of great music on most of them. In the past, the only way to discover if an album was worthwhile was to buy it, often at the risk of disappointment. Now that the cost of a blank disc is less than a buck, it-s easy to understand why illegal downloading and piracy has gained so much favor in recent years.

Though these music lovers are stealing the music, the record industry is not completely off the hook either. If consumers are dissatisfied with the costs of CD's, the music business has a responsibility to their companies, to their artists and to the health of the music industry, to make sure consumers are educated about why they cost so much: educated to know that 19 out of 20 CD's released do not make money, to know about the high costs of commercial radio airplay, and to understand where profits for labels go. If the music business doesn-t educate its consumers to save itself, who will?

When the movie business saw how the music business mishandled their own public relations, the film industry jumped into action. The film companies organized and created a multi million dollar in theater campaign to underscore the negative effects of piracy. By that time, the labels had awoken to their own problems but still, offered little fight. Consumers were now burning more than ever before and felt righteous doing it. So the labels did the only thing they knew how to - they sued the most egregious offenders. Their trade organization, the RIAA, handed out subpoenas without attempting to educate the public about the changes in the industry. They leaned on the law to save their future.

Though I believe that everyone knows that stealing candy from a supermarket is wrong, it-s the fundamental understanding why stealing the candy is wrong that-s a much more important deterrent to teach. Teaching right and wrong on the basis of law has never worked well, particularly for young people. A much more effective way to change behavior is to teach someone what the effect their actions will have. Do that, and you bring community into the conversation. It-s exactly what-s missing from the labels and until they focus on it, downloading and piracy will remain a significant problem.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.