“Why I Like Digital Downloads”

Member to Member

Volume CIII, No. 7/8July, 2003

Michael Drapkin

As a member of 802, I have read a number of pieces over the last year in Allegro on the subject of digital downloads. One of the common themes has been that digital downloads of music and other media are causing severe damage to the recording industry, and therefore to recording musicians’ income. I am sympathetic to the plight of my fellow musicians, but I strongly disagree with the positions 802 has taken.

It has yet to be proved that digital downloads cause the record companies damage. (Of course, it is also unproven that the downloaders would actually purchase the items they are downloading if they could not download them.)

In fact, the only actual study I have seen is a well-known survey by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) that came out several years ago. It found that people who download music from the Internet are far more likely to go out and purchase music than non-downloaders. Where is the damage?

I believe that blaming downloaders for the ills of an already sick recording industry is shortsighted.

Another major point is that we are talking about an intellectual property issue, which is a complex issue that has dogged society since the first movable press hundreds of years ago.

The interesting point here is that digital downloads only seriously affect the five major record labels – only five – who use a business model where very few of the recording artists ever see any financial benefit from their recordings. Everyone knows that bands make their money from tours, not records, unless you are a superstar.

So the issue of damage here is really confined to a few huge corporations who exploit their artists, sell their music with no compensation, then cry crocodile tears that their intellectual property rights are being usurped.

But let’s examine that issue. Are their rights being damaged? For several decades now, these same record companies have been distributing digital masters of their intellectual property in the form of compact discs, and then complain when their fully unprotected raw digital media are being transferred through other kinds of digital media, such as the Internet.

That is, when Warner sells a single CD of Madonna’s “American Life,” for instance, the company is pretty much giving away a digital master of that album!

Record companies have left themselves open for that, and because they have not done any due diligence in protecting their copyrighted intellectual property, they will ultimately fail in court.

In order to defend your rights, you must show that you have taken all care in protecting your intellectual property. Otherwise your rights will be held invalid. Distributing exact copies of digital masters via CD is no protection at all.

Another important issue that needs to be addressed is the five record companies’ attempts at restraint of trade by vigorously litigating against file sharing software (like Kazaa, Morpheus or Grokster) through their attack dog, the RIAA.

The issue here is preservation of their monopoly of distribution. These five labels are powerful because of their distribution ability, and their relative monopoly over it. The Internet threatens that, and if artists can bypass them and distribute their own intellectual property directly to the public without having to go through a major record label, then why do we need major record labels?

Don’t forget that all these five labels do is provide distribution, and do not provide any compensation for the sales that they make to the large majority of recording musicians who are not royalty artists.

Frankly, I think that the days of the recording companies are numbered, and their lawsuits against file sharers are a feeble attempt to close the barn door after the cows are already out.

My last point is that I like file sharing. It gives me access to things that would be otherwise impossible to obtain or cannot buy. For example, through file sharing I can download General Eisenhower’s address announcing Operation Overlord – the invasion of Europe during World War II.

File sharing also allows musicians to promote themselves over the Internet if they haven’t signed with one of the major record labels.

And, yes, just like the RIAA discovered, when I download a piece of music I like, I more often than not will go out and buy the recording.

I do agree that the real issue is how will musicians be paid or otherwise compensated for creating music. New models will have to be developed, but as usual, that will have to wait until society catches up with technology.

Clarinetist Michael Drapkin, a member of chamber group Music Amici, earns his living from technology management and business consulting. A former member of the Honolulu Symphony, he was the chair of E-Commerce Management at Columbia’s Executive Information Technology Management Program. He is the author of five books, including “Symphonic Repertoire for the Bass Clarinet.”