Friday, November 25, 2005

DRM, copyright and the end of the music industry

This has been brewing in my mind most of November, so it will probably ramble a bit.

Back on Nov 2nd Adam Curry had reported on someone, and I could not find the link, that had predicted the end of the music industry as we know it within 12-18 months. PW Fenton in a recent podcast declared that he is going "podsafe" - as he said "if I can't buy it from the artist, I ain't buying it." Of course that came as fallout from Adam Curry getting the semi-nice (at least that is my guess) "stop playing licensed music or else" letter, no doubt delivered by Guido of the 1 eyebrow.

Not long after that we get the whole fall out from the Sony rootkit DRM stuff, which I have blogged about this month. As time as passed it looks like Sony is going to get hung up by its dangly bits, legally speaking, over this. For those who's head has been in the sand for the last month - the rootkit is a hidden program that you cannot find on your system that reports back to the mothership home office about what you do with select Sony-BMG CDs on your computer. The techology though provides for a way for various malware to hide on your system, and the original patch left an even bigger hole and potentially caused hardware problems.

Of course the RIAA and the labels will claim they are protecting the income of artists. This article, or one similar, has been around to show that the amount of money that worms its way down to the artist overall is usually rather small. Granted beer money is better than no money, but it becomes obvious that they are not protecting the financial interest of the artist as much as their own financial interests. One other interesting point I recall from the music industry is they loose money on most artists, and again they need strong sales on a few acts to support all the acts they loose money on. More on that in a bit.

Now I think that the 18 month time frame for the death of the music industry as we know it a little premature. If for no other reason they control the rights for people to cover some great music. Composers need to get their cut, and as Coverville has shown covering a song is a popular thing in the music industry.

So what are we to do? DRM is not really a good answer. Even the limited DRM, like I saw on The Reverse Engineers' Mercury In Retrograde can cause problems. They have a limited use DRM that allowed for 3 plays before you had to pay a dollar. Not a bad idea, however when I first played in it on my home computer I had to retrieve an update to my player. I have not tested this yet, but my guess is that it will run into the same problem as any other DRM when you need to move the mustic to another machine, or you get a new MP3 player. Even Dave Winer recently had a very bad experience with Apple's DRM with a new video iPod. Nothing like loosing your entire music collection that you paid for because your portable player died and you had to plug in a new one. (Granted, this was not Dave's case, but you can see where that would happen.)

So what are we to do?

First off the music industry needs to realize that times have changed. Instead of signing a 100 acts with the hope of 5 being hits, maybe the music industry needs to cut back to 50. The big labels have some advantages - they have the contacts to setup tours, promote, etc. Just because someone is a good musician does not mean they are good at PR. Podcasting can get your music heard by others, may result in some CD sales, but writing press releases, picking good photos, designing album art, and a hundred of other details may escape the musician. Maybe Adam Curry's idea of the unlabel can help with that, freeing the musician to make music.

As listeners of course the most important thing for us to do is to support musicians we like. It would be great if we could find DRM-free downloads. We need to either buy the songs we like, or maybe pickup the whole album. Word of mouth is the best form of advertising for groups, so letting people know about groups you find interesting is a must. More stores like CD Baby that caters to independent musicians need to come up.

Musicians need to release a song or two free of DRM. These songs need to be representative of their sound. Too often I have heard 30 second cuts of songs, or a whole song, that is far from representative of the song or sound of the group. If you want me to buy an album, give me something that will give me an idea of how it will all sound. If you listened to only the song Beth from Kiss you would not have an idea of their overall sound.

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