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Weekly Column

I'm With the Band: Reader Reflections on Peer-to-Peer and Big Media

Status: [CLOSED]
By Robert X. Cringely

For a column about technology, what’s interesting about the reader response to last week’s effort was that hardly anyone had much to say about technology. There was little doubt among readers that peer-to-peer file sharing systems COULD influence and even replace much of Big Media over time, but there was a lot of debate over the artistic and business issues — all of it quite interesting, and some of it quite valid.

The response I found amusing came from several inventors of systems for intellectual property distribution and author compensation. These varied a bit, but the general idea was that authors and artists would throw their stuff into a machine where users would find and buy it, facilitated by third-party salespeople who would be compensated for their efforts by the authors and artists. It’s a great idea, except there is no enforcement mechanism to make use the system. Maybe it would work if all the artists and authors simultaneously and exclusively distributed their stuff through the big engine, but that simply isn’t going to happen.

Other people thought the existing enforcement mechanism — rabid lawyers employed by large media companies — would be a far greater discouragement of peer-to-peer than the kids at Microsoft Research anticipate. Here’s one especially eloquent respondent:

“There is a chap, perhaps you know him, Ashleigh Brilliant, who has a nice little business going on with his aphoristic potshots, illustrated postcards and other creations. I should have said ‘litigious chap’ because he's ready to sue at the utterance of one of his copyrighted sayings — and after all, he has trademarked ‘Brilliant Thoughts’ and is ready to sue anyone who tries to outbrilliant Ashleigh.”

“From his website: ‘My copyrights have been tested in U.S. Federal Court, and found to be ‘valid, subsisting, and enforceable.’ (Brilliant v. W.B. Productions Inc., U.S. District Court, Los Angeles, Civil Action #CV 79 1893-WMB. Judgment entered 10/22/1979. See also Richard W. Stim, ‘Copyright Protection for Literary Phrases,’ in New Matter [Official Publication of the State Bar of California Intellectual Property Section] Vol. 14, No. 4, Winter 1989, pp. 7-12).”

“An editor friend first told me about Brilliant's rabid (and successful) pursuit of copyright violations. All Brilliant had to do whenever he encountered one of his aphorisms used without permission was to write a letter to the publisher, citing the judgment in the above quotation, and demanding $500 in lieu of a lawsuit. Invariably the publisher paid off. A nice sideline. I had a vision of a gaggle of Brilliant bounty hunters who would track down violations for a cut of the take (more likely a Google than a gaggle — Bob).”

“Big media has the power to bring these kinds of lawsuits and no doubt will.(These are not SLAPP suits, because they're backed by copyright law.) It's one thing to sue Napster and win — Napster had a lot of resources to fight the lawsuits and still tanked. But Big Media can and will start suits against ISPs and colleges and in fact any business or institution --or individual-- who can be shown to violate copyright.Microsoft by the way does this all the time — for example, sending letters to school districts giving them 60 days to come into compliance, then dispatching a team of technicians to find out whether the district is using unlicensed MS software. Dire consequences. ‘Legal action won't be enough,’ say the folks at Microsoft Research. Well, ask those who have been touched by the heavyhandof Microsoft's own legal enforcers.”

“I think it's amusing that the MS kids in Redmond...think that ‘critical mass’ will make enforcement impossible, hence resistance futile. I think that's typical of the grandiose thinking of young peoplewhoseonly real power is purchasing power. Young people whose only experience withrepressive societies was high school.”

“It should be pretty clear that Big Media owns the territory and we're just sharecroppers. They own the politicians, they own the enforcers. And the geeky wannabes who get heavy into filesharing have no clue about the power that can be brought to bear. They can be pauperized in a Hollywood minute — their parents can befinancially wiped out.”

Sad, but on many levels, true.

On a simpler and less dreary note, many readers pointed out that it is hard to argue with the printed book as an inexpensive and versatile data store. It is cheap, persistent, can go with you to the bathroom, is readable in daylight, still works on the ninth day of a backpacking trip, and most of us can afford to have as many open on our desks at the same time as we want. True, it isn’t easily searchable, is limited to the words installed during manufacture, and doesn’t allow cutting or pasting, but how likely are we this decade or next to even partially replace it with something else?

There were those who argued that Moore’s Law probably DID mean that their kid will be able to make a photorealistic version of Citizen Kane on their desktop in 2023, to which I can only reply that while they might be able to make the movie, it is doubtful that they would be able to write it. Notwithstanding the guy who programmed a computer to write a bad novel in the style of Jacqueline Suzanne (that is, a bad rendition of an already bad genre — could two bads make a good?), I don’t think machine writing is much of a threat to anyone who makes his or her living by the keyboard.

Then there are the frustrated musicians who would like to see a better path through digital technology, but can’t:

“You know, I remember a time only 10 to 20 years ago,” wrote one reader. “The big music companies were treading the musicians underfoot and producing only me too, bubble gum pop. At that time, the cost of recording equipment was such that with a smallish bag of money, anyone could set up a recording studio at least to tape, in their homes. The quality wasn't as good as from a real studio, but that actually was used by some bands to show that their music was more real. (In fact, some of the big labels actually reduced the quality of the final mix on their groups to make it feel more like ‘real’ music.) I remember this being heralded as the start of a new revolution for musicians. They could control their music and get all of the money.”

“Well, that didn't pan out. But during the same time, some people were pooling their smallish bags of money into modest bags of money and actually setting up a full to CD recording studio. These ‘independent’ labels were also heralded as the savior of all musicians. They got better quality, some marketing muscle, but more control over their music and more of the money coming in.”

“As you can tell from today, both of these much heralded gains for the artist in the music world have failed. Why should the Internet change that? I think, and this is now sliding into opinion, that these two trends from the late 80s and 90s didn't ‘fail’ completely. In many cases, I think they succeeded locally and failed globally. That is, as long as the band had a local following, they could make money this way. As long as the independent labels had contacts into the local radio stations, bands could make money.”

“But it is very hard for a band to sell, by themselves, to several cities; you have to have a fan base to sell to and tell their friends about your to generate more sales. Building a fan base isn't, usually, done by playing one gig a quarter in a city. It generally requires playing every weekend for a while so the buzz about your band gets out and attracts more people. While you do this in one city, you can't really sell in your ‘old’ city.”

“Independents ran into similar problems. The definition of ‘local’ could have been wider than it would be for a band alone. But the independent labels would be working the record stores and radios stations, rather than gigs. So, they start running into the major labels' marketing. Most local radio stations will showcase local talent, and listen to local independent record companies, after all, it's of local interest. But they would normally not listen to independents from out of state, say, because the local interest isn't there.”

“Of course, some independent companies have flourished. But guess what, mosthave been bought by a major label to be used as their unproven talent agency. Those that didn't have grown up to become larger labels, with the additional management, marketing, etc., and have started to act just like the major labels.”

“Given that, what exactly can the Internet do? If I am part of a band, certainly I can put my music out on a web site, but how will anyone know that it is there? I could use something like MusicMatch's radio feature to push my music into the ‘air’ but with thousands of such internet radio stations, who will tune in?”

“Unfortunately, it all comes down to marketing. You say that we need someonewilling to ‘trad[e] 15 percent of $30 times 100,000 copies for 100 percent of $0.50 times 1 million copies.’ This is fine, but somehow, you still need to get one million people to buy, which means probably about two million people to try. How is a single band going to do that? How can the buzz for a band get spread out over an Internet flooded with thousands of other bands? I would love to have bands, actually any artist, be able to make money this way. But, turning this personally, I don't see how I'll find out about new bands, writers, poets, etc., when I already don't have, or want to take, enough time to follow those groups, etc., I do know about.”

It sounds to me (this is Bob again) like there is a lot of angst in the garage band community. But what this reader cites isn't a problem of art or technology, but of marketing. The big labels have all the money, all the airtime, all the connections, etc. — what's a poor band to do? First thing I'd recommend is to stop whining (not the writer, of course, but the poor beleaguered bands).

How many superstars can there be? Is there room for one more superstar? Sure. Is there room for 1,000 more superstars? No. So I'd say there is a limit on how many rich musicians can be supported by ANY economy, whether it is local or national or international. Why can't all the good musicians be superstars? Because there just isn't enough money to go around, that's why.

Yet it is possible for a local band to succeed locally. If I am a hard-working band in a major market like New York or L.A. (or even a middle market like Portland or Milwaukee), can I make a living doing what I love? Yes. I can play — for money — every weekend. I can sell my CDs locally and at my gigs. During the week, I can work on new songs, shoot music videos with my buddies, whatever I want to do. I just can't be very successful if I go out of town.

What's wrong with that? They still get the chicks.

How many local bands are there for every national/international band? Has that ratio changed at all in 40 years? Why should we expect something like the Internet to make it change? If the historic ratio is 100-to-1 and we find that among those local bands striving to break out only one in 100 makes it, why should that be so surprising?

But there is something else going on here — something that also has nothing to do with art or technology: Most bands are lousy at self-promotion. They do the same old things that have led to a 100-to-1 national/international success ratio AND EXPECT IT TO BE DIFFERENT FOR THEM. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different outcome. This is insane.

If playing at local clubs, selling local records, and getting airplay on local radio stations works for supporting bands on a blue collar basis, why do we expect that the same efforts should EVER lead to broader success? Typically, they only do so if the right scout from the right record company drops by on the right night. That's too much reliance on coincidence for me. While we can complain that what never really worked before still doesn't really work in the age of the Internet, this has nothing to do with the Internet.

The second most popular independent movie of all time (after "My Big Fat Greek Wedding") was "The Blair Witch Project," a cheap horror movie that was made in a week and succeeded primarily because of a clever Internet marketing blitz. THEY DID SOMETHING DIFFERENT, and it was a success. Yes, the Internet was involved (and that might be a good model), but the important part was to do something different.

The only way that new bands are going to reliably break the 100-to-1 mold is by doing something different, whether or not it involves the Internet. And if they do, then what is their likelihood of success? It might be two to three times as good, but still lousy just because the Stones are still touring and people buy tickets for KISS concerts leaving not much space on the charts for new groups. There is only so much money to go around. None of this has to do with the Internet. What the Internet can do is reach a widely distributed audience of interested people, but generally those people are already in contact with each other. Maybe they all went to the same school. Maybe they tend to be in the same industry. Maybe they abuse the same drugs. Whatever the connection, affinity groups create themselves, and the key to marketing to them is to identify the group and learn how to share the communication channel they are already using. Do bands use this technique, which was invented by the Grateful Dead? Not very much. Why not? Beats me.

I think the Internet CAN be a successful medium for new artists. But it won't happen if they wait for the success to come to them, if they do what everyone else has always done with little success. What the Internet can do is lower the cost of distributing and promoting good music, but it can't make bad music good, and it can't do anything without a big effort not just at being energetic, but also at being smart.

I don't think we have seen very much clever local music promotion on the Internet. There is the prospect of listeners (and buyers) all over the world, but only if you can get them to try. How do you do that? I don't know. But what I DO know is that it can be done and when it is done it will be using techniques that are new, not old.

End of rant.

These issues will resolve themselves in time, of course, but it could happen so much faster if we could come up with ways of doing business that make sense for all parties. Certainly the movie, recording, and print industries are taking the wrong approach to the problem. With every new generation of technology comes the need for a different business model. History has lots of examples of firms that faltered because they could not adjust.

What if you were a record company going into business today? What if you sold most of your product over the internet — how would you run your business? Here’s one thought from a good friend of mine. I did not think this one up.

The typical retail cost of a CD comes to about $0.18 a minute. If you eliminate the publication and distribution costs maybe you could get the price down to $0.10 a minute.

Kids love creating their own mixes of songs. What if they could legally buy songs by the minute? Their form of payment would be a prepaid music card, similar to the prepaid phone cards that are so popular now in the U.S and abroad. A $10 card could buy 100 minutes of music.The average kid cannot afford to buy a dozen CDs to make his/her personal mix of songs. They can afford a $10 to $20 investment to download the songs they want.

If you consider a different business paradigm, then new ways to encourage legal behavior become possible.If your business model is based on downloads and mixes, then you can do some things with the software and file formats to make it even easier and more attractive to the consumer.

What if you were at a party and really enjoyed the selection of music. Your host could e-mail you their "play list". The play list would not contain the actual music, but would be an intelligent file with links to the music source. You could surf it, pick the songs you liked, and build your own mix.

What if kids were exchanging play lists instead of MP3 files?

If the cost is REASONABLE and it’s EASIER to build your own mix than to trade CDs, you'll probably have a successful and sustainable business model. Once you have a new business model, then go back and find ways to include the traditional distribution channel.

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