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A freedom that works: the upside of download

About the author
Janis Ian debuted on the music scene in 1967 at the age of 15 with Society’s Child, which won the first of her nine Grammy nominations. She has since released seventeen albums, the latest in 1997.
Janis Ian in concertJanis Ian in concert
When I research an article, I normally send thirty or so emails to friends and acquaintances asking for feedback. I usually receive ten to twenty in reply. But not so on this subject!

I sent thirty-six emails requesting opinions and facts on free music downloading from the Net, outlining my argument that free Internet downloads are good for the music industry and its artists.

I’ve received, to date, over three hundred replies, every single one from someone legitimately “in the music business.” What’s more interesting than the emails are the ‘phone calls. I don’t know anyone at National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) – home of the Grammy Awards – and I barely know Hilary Rosen, head of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Yet within twenty-four hours of sending my original email, I’d received two messages from Rosen and four from NARAS requesting that I call to “discuss the article.”

Huh. Didn’t know I was that widely read. Ms. Rosen, to be fair, stressed that she was only interested in presenting RIAA’s side of the issue, and was kind enough to send me a fair amount of statistics and documentation, including a number of focus group studies RIAA had run on the matter.

The NARAS people were a bit pushier. They told me downloads were “destroying sales”, “ruining the music industry”, and “costing you money”. Costing me money? I don’t pretend to be an expert on intellectual property law, but I do know one thing. If a music industry executive claims I should agree with their agenda because it will make me more money, I put my hand on my wallet – and check it after they leave – just to make sure nothing’s missing.

Am I suspicious of all this hysteria? You bet. Do I think the issue has been badly handled? Absolutely. Am I concerned about losing friends, opportunities, and my 10th Grammy nomination by publishing this article? Yeah. I am. But sometimes things are just wrong, and when they’re that wrong, they have to be addressed.

The benefits of download

The premise of all this ballyhoo is that the industry (and its artists) is harmed by free downloads. Nonsense. Let’s take it from my personal experience. My site gets an average of 75,000 hits a year. Not bad for someone whose last hit record was in 1975? When Napster was running full-tilt, we received about 100 hits a month from people who’d downloaded Society’s Child or At Seventeen for free, then decided they wanted more information.

Of those 100 people, 15 bought CDs. Not huge sales, right? No record company is interested in 180 extra sales a year. But in my book that translates into $2700, which is a lot of money to me. And it doesn’t include the ones who bought the CDs in stores, or who came to my shows. Every time we make a few songs available on my website, sales of all the CDs go up.

Now, the RIAA and NARAS, as well as most of the entrenched music industry, are arguing that free downloads hurt sales and destroys the industry. Alas, the music industry needs no outside help to destroy itself.

Let me remind you that the music industry responded exactly the same to the advent of reel-to-reel home tape recorders, cassettes, DATs, minidiscs, VHS, BETA, music videos, MTV, and a host of other technological advances designed to make the consumer’s life easier and better.

The only reason they didn’t react that way publicly to the advent of CDs was because they believed CD’s were uncopyable. I was told personally by a former head of Sony marketing, when they asked me to license Between the Lines in CD format – at a reduced royalty rate, “Because it’s a brand new technology.”

Realistically, why do most people download music? To hear new music. Not to avoid paying $5 at the local used CD store, or taping it off the radio, but to hear music they can’t find anywhere else. Face it – most people can’t afford to spend $15.99 to experiment. That’s why listening booths (which labels originally fought against, too) are such a success.

You can’t hear new music on the radio these days; I live in Nashville, “Music City USA”, and we have exactly one station willing to play a non-top-40 format. On a clear day, I can even tune it in. The situation’s not much better in Los Angeles or New York. College stations are sometimes bolder, but their wattage is so low that most of us can’t get them.

In the hysteria of the moment, everyone is forgetting the main way an artist becomes successful – exposure. Without exposure, no one comes to shows, no one buys CDs, no one enables you to earn a living doing what you love. In 37 years as a recording artist, I’ve created 25+ albums for major labels, and I’ve never once received a royalty check that didn’t show I owed them money. So I make the bulk of my living from live touring, playing for 80-1500 people a night, doing my own show.

I spend hours each week with the press, writing articles, making sure my website tour information is up to date. Why? For exposure to an unfamiliar audience. So, when someone writes and tells me they came to my show because they’d downloaded a song and got curious, I am thrilled!

Congress thinks otherwise. Senator Fritz Hollings, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee said to Newsweek, “When Congress sits idly by in the face of these [file-sharing] activities, we essentially sanction the Internet as a haven for thievery”, then went on to charge “over 10 million people” with stealing.

So that’s what we think of consumers? Thieves, out to get something for nothing. Baloney! Most consumers have no problem paying for entertainment. Particularly when they’re paying $50-$125 apiece for concert tickets, and $15.99 for new CDs they know costs less than a dollar to manufacture and distribute.

I don’t blame the RIAA. They are, after all, the Recording Industry Association of America, formed so the labels would have a political lobbying group in Washington. But given that our industry’s success is based on communication, their response to the Internet has been abysmal.

Of course, communication has always been the artist’s, not the executives’, job. That’s why it’s so scary when people like NARAS’ ex-president Michael Greene begins using shows like the Grammy Awards to drive their point home.

Grammy viewership hit a six-year low in 2002. Moves like the ridiculous Elton John and Eminem duet did little to make people want to watch again the next year.

In his speech, Greene told the viewing audience that NARAS and the RIAA were, in large part, taking their stance to protect artists. He hired three teenagers to spend a couple of days doing nothing but downloading, and they managed to download “6,000 songs”.

For free “front-row seats” at the Grammys and an appearance on national TV, I’d download twice that amount! But who’s got time to download that many songs? Does Greene really think people are spending 12 hours a day downloading our music? If they are, they must be starving to death, because they’re not making a living or going to school.

This sort of thing is indicative of the way statistics are tossed around. It’s dreadful to think that consumers are being asked to take responsibility for the industry’s problems, which have been around far longer than the Internet.

It’s the exposure, stupid

The industry has been complaining for years about the stranglehold the middle-man has on their dollars, yet they wish to do nothing to offend those middle-men. BMG has a strict policy for artists buying their own CDs to sell at concerts – $11 per CD. They know very well that most of us lose money if we have to pay that much; the point is to keep the big record stores happy by ensuring sales go to them. NARAS and the RIAA are moaning about the little Mom & Pop stores being shoved out of business; no one worked harder to shove them out than our own industry, which greeted every new Tower or mega-music store with glee, and offered steep discounts to Target and WalMart for stocking CDs. What was the Internet’s role in this?

And for those of us with major label contracts who want some of our music available for free downloading… well, the record companies own our masters, our outtakes, even our demos, and they won’t allow it. Furthermore, they own our voices for the duration of the contract, so we can’t even post a live track for downloading!

The music industry should be rejoicing at this new technological advance! Here’s a foolproof way to deliver music to millions who might otherwise never purchase a CD in a store. The cross-marketing opportunities are unbelievable. It’s instantaneous, costs are minimal, shipping non-existent… a staggering vehicle for higher earnings and lower costs. Instead, they’re running around like chickens with their heads cut off! As an alternative to encrypting everything, and tying up money for years – potentially decades – fighting consumer suits demanding their first amendment rights be protected (which have always gone to the consumer, as witness the availability of blank and unencrypted VHS tapes and cassettes), why not take a tip from book publishers and writers?

There is zero evidence that material available for free online downloading is financially harming anyone. In fact, most of the hard evidence is to the contrary.

It’s sheer stupidity to rejoice at the Napster decision. Free exposure is practically a thing of the past for entertainers. Getting your record played on the radio costs more than most of us ever dream of earning. Free downloads give a chance to every do-it-yourself’er out there. Every act that can’t get signed to a major label, for whatever reason, can literally reach millions of new listeners, enticing them to buy CDs and come to concerts. Where else can a new act get that kind of exposure?

In a time when there are arguably only four record labels left in America (Sony, AOL Time Warner, Universal, BMG)… when entire genres are glorifying the gangster mentality… when executives change their positions as often as Zsa Zsa Gabor changed outfits… when “A&R” has become a euphemism for “Absent & Redundant”… well, frankly, we have other things to worry about.

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