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Can The Recording Industry Spell 'Net'? 12 December 2001 Edition
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After reading this story by Chris Barton in the NZ Herald yesterday, I thought I'd give Sony Music NZ a call.

With an awareness that there are probably more than a handful of Aardvark readers who might be tempted to burn a CD or two for friends or relatives as a Christmas gift, I thought I ought to speak to the recording industry and get their point of view.

I spoke with Michael Glading, the managing director of Sony Music NZ who seems to be an amiable enough chap with a hell of a difficult job: convincing the huge number of local file-traders and music pirates to mend their wicked ways.

As someone who relies on the copyright act and the protection it affords my intellectual property, I have some sympathy for the music industry -- and I have to say that they're in dire need of help right now.

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All Copying Is Verboten
I started my conversation with Mr Glading by asking what the industry's policy was on the recording of popular music tracks from FM radio or TV.

"It's illegal" I was told. "To copy music in any form is illegal."

No ambiguity there eh?

Readers Say
(updated hourly)
  • music and the industry... - Spiro
  • Burn Baby Burn... - James
  • So what's with Minidiscs?... - Dylan
  • burning cd... - Nick
  • the industry will get burnt... - James
  • So all recording of songs is illegal?... - Malcolm
  • How the music industry is screwing me... - Allister
  • Any copying is illegal... - Edwin
  • Have Your Say

    If you're deranged enough to record the latest "boy band" hit onto an old C90 cassette as it plays on your favourite FM radio station then you're making yourself liable to prosecution.

    Set the VCR to tape "Top of the Pops" on Saturday afternoon because you'll be at the rugby or the cricket -- and you're breaching the copyright law -- well that's what Mr Sony Music says anyway.

    Sony: Aiding And Abetting Piracy?
    Of course, as readers would naturally expect, I took the opportunity to point out the obvious anomaly such a statement created and I asked "So why do Sony make stereos and cassette recorders with features and functionality clearly designed to make such law breaking very easy?"

    Well it seems that although taping the odd track from radio or TV is, strictly speaking, "illegal" -- it's not the sort of activity that the recording industry is going to bother hunting down and prosecuting people for.

    Michael made it clear that the current BRN&GTBRNT (Burn and Get Burnt) campaign is focused on those people who are tempted to burn CDs from MP3s or by copying and sell or give them away. It's this type of activity that is allegedly costing the industry around $95 million a year in lost sales.

    Lots Of Questions, Few Answers
    I also posed some of the other the questions that I've asked in this column before:

    What does the license entered into when you buy a recording allow? Can I make a backup copy of a CD for my own protection -- just in case the original gets scratched? If it is scratched -- can I get it replaced for the cost of the media?

    Unfortunately there were no direct answers to these questions -- just a general reiteration that ALL copying is illegal -- but duplication for your own use wasn't the focus of the BRN&GTBRNT campaign.

    I suggested that perhaps instead of trying to lay down the law, develop decidely flakey copy-protection systems, and prosecute offenders -- the recording industry might be better advised to address some of the reasons/excuses that MP3 traders and CD-copiers often use to justify their activities.

    Michael said that although he'd had many of those excuses presented before, he didn't feel that they were a major driving force behind the hugely increased levels of piracy the industry was now facing.

    Nice Guys Or Profiteers?
    But what about the huge price difference between cassette and CD recordings of the same album?

    Well it seems that CDs are cheaper to duplicate than cassettes, but sell for about $10 more. It was admitted that the margins on CDs are higher than those on cassettes -- but I was told that it wasn't a case of CDs being overpriced -- it was more that cassettes were underpriced because they were an "inferior" product and the price was dictated by market forces.

    I reserve judgement on this one -- what do you think? Is the recording industry playing Mr Nice Guy by selling us cassettes at a much-reduced profit margin -- or are they using their monopoly contracts with key recording artists to squeeze an unreasonably high profit from CDs?

    Copy Protection In NZ?
    My final question was related to copy-protection: "Will we see copy protected CDs in New Zealand?"

    I was told that it wasn't a decision that would be made here and that we'd follow directions handed down from overseas. It sounds to me very much like this is a great big YES -- we will see copy-protected disks here.

    So, what do I think?

    Shut-up And Just Buy The Music Okay?
    Well I'm afraid the recording industry are the authors of their own misfortune.

    There seems to be a massive void between the industry and its customers -- and they're simply not going out of their way to listen to and address the demands of consumers. Instead, they seem to be relying on copyright laws and the advice of people who don't have a clue about the technology and culture (see next heading) which is currently allowing millions of people to trade music freely over the Net.

    No industry, no matter how strong its monopoly or how sharp its lawyers are, can ignore the voices of its customers in this way and survive.

    Not only is the industry arrogant -- they're also incredibly stupid. How stupid?

    Where's the Website????
    Well guess what? Even though the BRN&GTBRNT campaign is targeting the tech-savvy generation who illegally trade MP3s over the Net and burn music CDs on their computers -- there appears to be no supporting website for it (or at least if there is, it's evaded my best efforts to find it).

    You'd think that if computer-based music piracy really is the $95 million problem the industry claims it to be, then a few grand of that reported $250,000 PR budget for the BRN&GTBRNT campaign could have gone towards building and promoting a website eh? After all, those in the 12-24-year-old target group are (as proven by their file-trading activities) very Internet-active.

    How dumb is that? Do we need any more proof that the industry is out of touch and perhaps not using the smartest consultants?

    What's more, there's no sign of the campaign on the SonyMusic.co.nz front page and none of NZ's or the world's leading search engines can find any pages with reference to BRN&GTBRNT. Check out the results of that query at: SearchNow.co.nz, SearchNZ.co.nz, AccessNZ.co.nz, Google.com, Yahoo.com.

    No sign at any of the local recording industry sites either. Where's the BRN&GTBRNT promotion at: SonyMusic.co.nz, FlyingNun.co.nz, EmiMusic.co.nz?

    So maybe the online retailers have been recruited to provide some online profile for the campaign -- after all, their bottom-lines must be taking a hammering from this increase in piracy right? Sorry -- wrong again. No sign at: Marbecks.co.nz, RealGroovy.co.nz, SmokeCDs.com, SoundsNZ.co.nz.

    Come on guys, you paid a PR company $250,000 to create and promote this campaign to a target demographic known to be very active on the Net -- and that's the best they can do?

    Is it any wonder that you're having so much trouble with the Internet -- you still don't know what it's for or how to leverage it to your advantage.

    All I can think to explain this is that the recording industry made a deliberate decision to keep all traces of this campaign off the Net -- but why? It just doesn't make any sense, does it? Even the lamest of web designers and Net-experienced PR people could have knocked you up a website and laid a trail of links from all the sites listed above for just a tiny fraction of that cool quarter million dollar budget.

    A Culture Of Justification
    Right now, file-traders and those burning CDs can come up with a long list of "justifications" for their activities. Many people I've spoken to have genuine grievances that the industry seems intent on totally ignoring. This has created a mindset amongst our youth which says "it's okay to screw the industry because they're screwing us."

    For these people there is no guilt associated with stealing the industry's intellectual property because they're able to rationalise the theft as "getting their own back" on faceless corporations who are (they believe) fleecing them through inconsistent pricing, draconian licensing and (now) the introduction of copy-protection -- something which effectively defames every customer by implying that they will rush away and pirate their new purchase.

    In short -- the pirates and teenage file-traders are not the problem -- they are just a symptom of the problem. The industry's real problem/enemy is own inability to communicate and adapt.

    A Big Dumb Thug?
    If the recording industry wants to reduce the levels of piracy then it's going to have to stop acting like a big, dumb thug, and become a smart, quick-thinking, customer-focused, highly adaptive marketing organisation. It's very much a case of "evolve or perish."

    In a fight between hundreds of millions of disgruntled consumers offered an easy (but illegal) way to avoid paying the "official" price for music CDs, and a small group of corporations and their lawyers -- I know where I'd put my money!

    Unless the industry wakes up to its own shortcomings pretty damned quickly then they'll be too late -- music piracy (just like cannabis use) will have become too deeply ingrained into the western world's youth culture, despite its illegal status.

    Maybe it's already too late?

    I've had my rant, now you have your say.

    ps: Don't pirate the music, but do let the industry know if you're dissatisfied with their product or the service they offer.

    Republication rights for this column are available on request

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