Music used to be about selling copies. Sell a copy of the vinyl or the 8-track, the cassette or the CD, and you’re in business. But now, thanks to the internet, copies are available for free online, regardless of the legality.
Where do we go from here?
The RIAA is fighting an uphill battle in what I’ve decided to call the “War on Share-erism.” While the reality of its end is arguable at best, they could be achieving success by thinking outside the box.
What makes people pay thousands of dollars for a Warhol print, a balloon dog by Koons, or an original from Opie? Similarly, why do diamonds and gemstones go for millions, while their near-equivalents, like cubic zirconium, cost so little? The answer is simple:
If Gerd Leonhard‘s “Music Like Water” theory holds, we’re only going to be faced with more free copies in the future. But if you take a page from Chris Anderson‘s theories on “freeconomics,” that’s not such a bad thing.
If music moved to the realm of the “freemium,” and followed the 1 Percent Rule (when 1 percent of paying users support everyone else’s free habits), maybe music Consumers, music Customers, and the RIAA could all get around a bonfire and sing “Kumbaya.”
Think about it: Consumers who just want to listen to the music get to hear it for free; Customers who want to pay a bit of a premium and have a physical copy (unlimited) could be charged at-cost; Patrons who want to hold onto a piece that they love could buy a rare, ultra-limited signed printing with a seal of authenticity for a pretty hefty premium; and Collectors who want to lay their paws on the ultra-rare could buy the original masters — if the artists (or labels) are ready to part with them.
Hell, this would even give labels newfound relevance. I posted earlier about the obsolescence of record labels; this model could give them a new raison-d’être. Since the internet and other technology have created a world where they are no longer needed for the five roles (production, manufacturing, distribution, promotion, and copyright), companies like Warner and Universal can instead find their jobs in adding value to the special “rare” releases. In fact, they won’t even need to retrain: the first four of their old roles will still be necessary!
Unfortunately, this forward-looking tale of happiness and harmony is going to stay a dream (at least in the relatively near future), and it’s all because of one word:
The current players don’t have the infrastructure to accomplish something like this. Most of them take money from their R&D (or A&R) department in the hopes of cutting costs while waiting for their next breakthrough hit. Because of that, they’re all pretty dependent on the old system, and have a vested interest in keeping it going — at least until that next blockbuster single, which will probably start the rat race all over again.
So I guess we’re stuck here, in this world where the companies sue the people they want to convert into customers, until someone finds a way out (and if you want to, please get in touch). In the meantime, I’m going to watch how this all unfolds, looking forward to the day when someone pokes some air-holes in the shoebox that the RIAA has called home for far too long.