"What a bunch of visionless business-school losers." Readers respond to Andrew Leonard's "The Digital Music Renaissance."

Published July 8, 2004 7:30PM (EDT)

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Up until this moment I had never read an article of any depth where I agreed with every sentence in it. But "The Digital Music Renaissance" by Andrew Leonard says everything I have been thinking about the music industry's stance and actions regarding the unlawful and outright shameful practice of some people who might make a copy of a copyrighted song.

During the Napster days, I was able to sample the music of artists I would never have heard had it not been for Napster. When, by chance, I did hear a song I liked on the radio, more often than not the song name and artist had either already been given or wasn't given at all. But, given sources such as Napster, I was able to hear what contemporary artists sound like. If I really liked their music I either ordered the CD on the Internet or I was off to my local music store for a copy. During that year or so, I bought over two dozen CDs. More CDs than I had bought over the past 20 years, CDs, cassette tapes or vinyl. And, if I really liked the artist, I usually wound up with two or three of their CDs, paying full price for them. Money the artists and distributors wouldn't have otherwise seen.

Now, I'm in the same boat as before. The music industry has made it so difficult to survey what's available, using the power of the courts to gig some unlucky individual with a $3,000 fine and intimidating everybody else that, frankly, my interest has all but vanished. On the other hand, the intimidation removes any vestige of guilt I may have had about copying their music. Not to mention the guilt that results from knowledge that many of those millionaire artists won't be able to afford that $15 million home and will have to settle for an $8 million or $9 million house.

-- Richard Forsyth

Andrew Leonard is right that storing and manipulating music digitally totally changes a person's relationship to music, but I wonder whether his integrity vis à vis buying music (as opposed to "sharing" it via Kazaa, etc.) isn't either overstated or naive. One of my greatest pleasures is being able to hear a song and find it online for free a few minutes later. I can't imagine paying for all the music I've downloaded and enjoyed, especially at the still extortional prices of iTunes and other services. I realize this makes me a shameless pirate, but I take refuge in Leonard's own argument; the digital music revolution is about instant access to everything at all times -- and such a revolution actually changes our relationship to music in beneficial ways.

Leonard seems to think that the recording industry has nothing to worry about because his own pattern (buying more music than before) is the norm. Well, it's not my norm. I have pretty much stopped spending my hard-earned money on music I can easily get for free. And most of the young people I see wandering around only listen to music on MP3 players and ripped CDs.

Judging by my own experience, the recording industry is quite right to be petrified.

-- "Music Lover"

Andrew Leonard's article on the music industry's failure to recognize the business opportunity of wireless hits the nail on the head.

I passed on the megaCD changers a few years ago, because of the difficulty of accessing a CD library on those machines, even if one were willing to spend an entire week hooking up a keyboard and typing in album titles. The device was nailed to one place in the house, and accessing individual tracks, to me, seemed the real reason for such a device. But accessing a single track was almost impossible on them.

After we installed a wireless router a year ago, our family can access, first from computers scattered across and outside the house, all our collective music on my computer's hard drive. Now our sons also have portable, hard drive players. And we recently purchased Creative's Wireless SoundBlaster with an LCD-equipped remote that allows instant access to any track, album or artist in our collection from our home theater.

As Leonard points out, this flexibility and instant access to a music archive has revolutionized the whole family's enjoyment of music. It also has significantly increased our music purchases over the last year.

Content owners should beware -- we won't buy CDs that prevent us from ripping them. We'll take our purchases elsewhere, to other CD companies. Or, we'll stop buying new content and stick only with what we have. This is the real threat to the music industry's future: that they might anger us sufficiently to simply stop buying from them. Along those lines, I'm planning to pay my youngest son to rip my considerable album collection to MP3s. I can live off my past purchases alone, if the industry sees the need to force me to do so.

The industry needs to hire a new set of executives with vision and stop relying on congressmen on their payroll to stop technological innovation that could increase their market -- if only the industry hired executives who knew enough about technology to be able to capitalize on opportunity.

Like an executive who might try significantly cutting prices on downloaded music, for example. Or provide discounts for purchases of tie-in downloads similar to the music/artist a consumer just took the trouble to purchase and download. Or offering selections from an artist's entire library (à la the box CD set). Or offer monthly subscriptions priced on limited number of downloads. Or sell CDs with pre-ripped MP3 or high-definition music videos. Or, rather than spending millions on advertising, offer sample tracks with digital rights that expire after a week or a month to entice people to sample -- and then buy, if they like.

Good Lord, you would think one or two executives might think of trying anything different than sending teens and grandmas to jail in order to force people to drive to Target to look at a lackluster collection of tired CDs, most available at the neighborhood gas station. This is what passes for the industry's 21st century marketing strategy, I gather.

Is there any entrepreneurial spirit still in the executive suites of BMG Music and Sony? Or do their V.P.s spend all their time writing legislation and figuring out ways to bribe their friendly congressmen to shove that legislation through Congress? What a bunch of visionless business-school losers.

-- R. Jarrett

I agree with most of what Andrew Leonard said. I'm 44, I missed the whole Napster thing because I was a CD-quality music snob and thought MP3s wouldn't be up to it. Later I experimented and found even 128K sounded better than my old 45s. After that I went into an illegal downloading frenzy using AudioGalaxy. I spent hours trying to remember old songs. In my defense, there wasn't much alternative then. I had already given the music business a huge bonus by repurchasing all the albums I already had on vinyl in CD form. Though not everything gets rereleased when you're a lover of obscure punk, '80s one-hit wonders and other quirks. Some stuff shows up on compilations but why should I fork out for a CD with 17 tracks I already own and one I'm looking for?

File sharing was the answer to everything, I was impressed with the coverage, I could rarely think up anything I couldn't find with a little patience. Like Andrew, mix CDs are my thing, one for every mood in the car. Back in the day, I did it with tapes, now CDs. File sharing could be annoying enough sometimes, though, that I would have gladly paid for one reliable, undistorted, complete, high-quality track. When iTunes came out I moved to that as my first place to look. Still it doesn't have everything, though, or there's a catch. When this happens I go back to my bad ways with the inferior Kazaa.

The music biz tricks are counterproductive; putting decoys out to download means I won't buy that artist again out of defiance. Since it's generally a contemporary artist that does this, it's no big loss to me, something new I just won't try. Radio, too, is part of the problem; I am not the customer to the radio station, the advertiser is -- I am the demographic they sacrifice to advertisers. So they put out a narrow playlist with appeal to the target demographic in broad terms. Lost are the novelties I might actually be into. I hear more new music in advertising (Dirty Vegas -- yeah!) now than I do on the radio: Apparently marketing likes the same quirkiness I do.

Bottom line, the music biz needs to quit trying to use technology and the legal system against me to save its archaic business model. Haven't you heard we're global these days? You think solutions won't appear offshore? The black market will find a way and you're still out on revenue and the gov will lose its tax income. Music will just join drugs, prostitution and Canadian medicines as illegal realities of life. The customer is always right, supply and demand mate.

-- Mark Baley

I couldn't agree more. I bought an iPod 3 weeks ago. At first, I was unsure of the merit of such an expenditure ($300), and I fretted and moaned about returning the dang thing. I donned the iPod, plugged the earbuds into my head, pumped up the volume, and holy cow, did I ever feel foolish walking around the office to my own little drum 'n' bass soundtrack (needless to say, I'm not a teenager anymore!).

But after I ripped my entire music collection into a device the size of a pack of playing cards, plugged the thing into my car stereo (with various adapters), and went for a very long drive -- all I can say is -- every penny spent was well worth it. And I'm not even mentioning the road tripper's friend of all friends: the audiobook, (downloaded from the iTunes store directly to my iPod).

If the recording industry, in its heavy-handed approach to eliminating piracy, wishes to trample the freedoms I enjoy as a new digital media consumer, they will surely be shooting themselves in the kneecaps!

I guess I feel for the RIAA and their war on consumer freedom/choice (the same way I feel for the neocons and their war on culture): A dinosaur on its way to extinction is a sad, sad sight, and who am I to fuss when it puts up an awful fight before disappearing completely?

-- Joe K

By Salon Staff

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