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The Boston Phoenix Digital Dilemmas

The real problem with MP3s

By Matt Ashare

AUGUST 7, 2000:  It's funny listening to and reading about all the controversy surrounding Napster -- because no matter how big an issue you make of the kind of song trading that takes place there, it's hard to imagine that the recording industry isn't going to face far more serious threats in a future where digitally downloading music will be commonplace. The problems all stem from the fact that recorded music is contained by but not identical to the packaging. Artists have traditionally signed away all kinds of rights to the companies that manufacture and distribute their music, and consumers fork over quite a bit of money each year to own the results. That is how the record business works, and why it could very well stop working if digital downloading becomes the norm. The record industry isn't selling music, it's selling packaging. Digital downloading removes packaging from the equation and, as one dot-com exec told the New Yorker, transforms music "from a physical product into pure media."

A lot of things we consume as entertainment -- live theater performances, ballgames, concerts -- are fleeting in nature, but the invention of mass-produced music-delivery formats in the early 20th century put music in a league of its own, enabling consumers to own copies of recorded performances, even though they could hear them for free on the radio. Of course, there are plenty of songs and records available that never make it to the airwaves, but hit songs have always been the lifeblood of the music industry, and they remain central to the Napster controversy. (If people were simply downloading obscure songs by marginal artists, you can bet that the RIAA would have been much slower to react; it's the trading of popular songs by big-name artists like Metallica that has the industry so worried.) The introduction of cassette tapes -- a move that was bitterly opposed by the same forces now lined up against Napster, and for many of the same reasons -- made it possible for consumers to tape their favorite songs from the radio and their favorite albums from friends, thus bypassing the distribution process. And yet the music industry continued its steady growth, weathering a post-disco depression only to reap massive profits from the CD boom of the '90s as consumers rushed to replace their vinyl copies of favorite albums with CD versions of music they already owned.

The CD revolution proved that convenience and, perhaps, digital fidelity matter to consumers. But it also reminded us that music is not the only thing that's sold at record stores. When you purchase an album, you can feel you're getting a piece of that artist, not to mention proclaiming your good taste and allying yourself with like-minded fans. People display their record collections proudly for a reason -- it's a reflection of who they are.

It's also significant that as delivery formats for music have grown more and more durable, the packaging itself has followed suit because, well, you'd have expected the opposite. Vinyl albums, which were much easier to bend, scratch, and otherwise damage than CDs, came in relatively flimsy cardboard sleeves -- indeed, as a holdover from the vinyl era, a 10-to-15-percent breakage clause is still built into many standard record contracts. The relatively indestructible CD, on the other hand, is sold mostly in hard plastic jewel cases. As a music critic I get a lot of advance CDs packaged in little more than cardboard or soft plastic slipcovers that seem to work perfectly well. Of course, it's now possible -- as it wasn't with vinyl -- to make an near-exact duplicate of a CD at home, using a CD burner. So packaging, which includes any pictures, lyrics, and liner notes, has a role that goes beyond just protecting the CD itself: it's the packaging that distinguishes the real from the fake, the original from the copy, and makes the end product appear more substantial. And for any consumer who proudly displays his or her music collection, this is an important distinction.

Which brings us back to the kind of downloadable digital files that are at the center of the Napster controversy, because such files have no packaging. In theory, at least, the record companies can sell recorded music (to those willing to forgo the packaging) from their own sites, but why pay the company for a Tom Petty MP3 when you can get the same configuration of digital code (no packaging either way) for free from someone else's collection at a site like Napster? And that could end up being a big problem for record companies regardless of whether they manage to put Napster out of business because, short of shutting down the Internet, it's hard to imagine a plausible means of curtailing such free exchanges of music that is indistinguishable from the purchased music.

But if the recording companies are facing big problems with consumers, they may be facing even bigger problems with the artists. Manufacturing (i.e., turning various raw materials into CDs and their packaging) and distribution (i.e., shipping those CDs to stores) are the two biggest burdens an artist relies on a record company to shoulder. (Recording costs and promotion, depending on the artist, tend to rank third and fourth.) Take manufacturing and distribution out of the picture -- which is what digital downloading does -- and you're left with a world in which the artist may not need the support of a major label or, indeed, any label. That may pose an even bigger threat to the music industry as it now exists than Napster or any similar venture. Either way, the existence of the kind of black-market (or non-market, since nobody's really paying) trading that Napster represents isn't something you can easily legislate out of existence. The RIAA may succeed in breaking up the massive community that Napster has come to embody, but if digital downloading truly is the wave of music's future, then Napster could end up being the least of the record industry's worries.

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