Scott Karp is frothing a bit in this evening’s post, Music Recording Industry Will Be First Traditional Media Industry To Be Utterly Destroyed By Digital Technology. What’s behind his post, and behind a lot of other commentary in the blogosphere, is this:
Now, in an unusual case in which an Arizona recipient of an RIAA letter has fought back in court rather than write a check to avoid hefty legal fees, the industry is taking its argument against music sharing one step further: In legal documents in its federal case against Jeffrey Howell, a Scottsdale, Ariz., man who kept a collection of about 2,000 music recordings on his personal computer, the industry maintains that it is illegal for someone who has legally purchased a CD to transfer that music into his computer.
I’m paranoid enough to believe that this isn’t mere legal wrangling on the part of the RIAA. I’ve suspected for a while this is where the music industry wants to take the argument. My reasoning is fairly simple: a huge part of the huge amounts of money flowing into the industry over the past 40 years has come from new technologies and the need to rebuy. Every time the method of delivery changed — from vinyl to cassette tape, from cassette tape to CD — serious music fans have laid out millions of dollars to repurchase music they already had to replace their “old” library.
Digitizing the music changed that: music bought once, as either CD or download, is easily transportable between any number of devices: MP3 players, computers, the home stereo system, game consoles, cellphones…
The music industry is not stupid. Given that the golden goose of format change has been killed (which, almost as much as file sharing or online sales, is surely behind the rapid decline in the sales of CDs: folks have finished upgrading their libraries), the “logical” step is to replace it by having music lovers pay for every use they make of a particular song. Pay for the CD, pay for the MP3 download, pay for the right to move it from the computer to the portable player. Scott writes:
And you thought you actually owned the digital bits on the CD you bought. No, silly. The recording industry owns them. Who knows if you even have the right to listen to the music when you have friends over. Maybe they all need to bring their own copies. Maybe you need to buy a copy for each room of your house, or one for listening in the morning and one for listening in the evening, or…
As far as Scott is concerned, the music industry is in a death spiral for ignoring the mantra of the digital age: change or die.
Small pieces of the industry are changing: any number of smaller, independent labels and a growing number of artists are finding innovative new ways to connect with music lovers and navigate the tricky waters of massive change. Three of the big four labels have dropped DRM from at least some of their offerings.
But the RIAA filing shows, I think, music is still an industry that in major ways refuses to come to grips with the huge technological and economic changes that are sweeping through all of media. Scott, again:
The maxim goes that new technologies don’t kill off old media — radio didn’t kill newspapers, TV didn’t kill radio, etc. But it’s not clear this maxim will hold true in the digital age. The first industry to suffer the slings and arrows of digital technology was the music recording industry, back when MP3s and Napster gave birth to digital music sharing. Now it seems likely that if digital technology is capable of utterly destroying an old media industry, the music recording industry will be its first victim.