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Jobs Saves the Music Industry?While he's at it, maybe he'll save the feature film industry, too
We who make a living by creating content -- all things video, audio, film, literate and visual -- are watching the death spiral of the CD-selling business with rapt attention. That's because, like a canary in a coal mine, when the major record labels tank, that might be a foreshadowing of what could happen to the big-time movie studios and most of the rest of us who make a living selling the rights to enjoy content to viewers, listeners and readers. The record companies have been taking their profits by employing a business model based on a basic difficulty: Getting musical data from there to here. Until the advent of the Internet, this business of transporting recorded music to its audience was fraught with difficulty. The old way of getting music to listeners required lots of trucks, jobbers, middle-men and women, disk jockeys, other oddly-named thousands of people and tons of heavy and expensive equipment. Now, all kinds of music (and soon video and major motion pictures) slip and slide with the greatest of ease over ubiquitous and liberally lubricated net-boulevards -- usually without benefit of payment. Those days of difficulty are over, at least for smaller, more easily-transported MP3 files. Video files, in light of exploding Internet bandwidth and clever compression, are getting to be almost as easily transported -- and that's why we're next. But as far as music is concerned, at this point all you need to distribute music far and wide is a bargain basement computer and a run-of-the-mill Web connection.
Enter Apple's Steve Jobs with his gorgeous new iTunes Music Store. If you haven't seen it yet, go take a look at this fantastic medium for selling music. Working with the newest version of iTunes (so far it's for Mac OS X only), it has a beautiful interface, it's easy to use, and each song can be downloaded for only 99 cents. The fact that the greedmeisters at the record companies went along with this scheme stands as testament to the miraculous salesmanship of Jobs, a man I am convinced is the P.T. Barnum of our time. The philosophy behind this new business for Apple is that this problem of stealing music won't be solved by legislation, or by arresting customers, but by changing the behavior of music consumers. And Jobs, with his cocky superiority complex, has convinced record company fat cats, along with assorted rock stars like Paul McCartney that he has just the idea that will initiate this extraordinary shift in human nature, with one Web site, with one interface, and with one digital rights management scheme called FairPlay. Fat chance.
Even so, I think the iTunes Music Store will be successful. In fact, it already is -- it reportedly sold a million songs in the first week. It will enable Apple to squeeze even more money out of its three percent market share of Mac users, and potentially much more when the PC users are allowed into the iTunes clubhouse later this year. The problem is, I think this will only fan the flames of file sharing systems like Kazaa. Unscrupulous iTunes users will burn their selections to CDs, rip them into MP3s and within a few days -- perhaps by the time you read this -- the entire catalog of the iTunes Music Store will be available for free to anyone with a Web connection, half a brain, and a copy of Morpheus or LimeWire. But that's not the behavior that Jobs wanted, is it? Why are they doing this? Because they're thieves? No, because they're human beings, that's why! People will take the path of least resistance if given the chance. And using a one-click interface, no matter how beautiful, isn't the path of least resistance as long as people are required to pay 99 cents per song. I think cost trumps ease of use, tipping the scale of the path of least resistance toward the cheapest route from there to here. And, who's saying an application like Morpheus is all that difficult to use, anyway? Beyond that, what's going to keep the coders who created Morpheus from copying Apple's iTunes ideas closely enough to equal the ease of use of the iTunes interface but different enough to avoid prosecution?
But wait. There's more to this story. Jobs used as part of his sales pitch to Hilary Rosen, President and CEO of Recording Industry Association of America, the idea that a big part of the success of this scheme will rely on the enforcement of copyright laws. Rosen said that in his sales pitch to her, Jobs acknowledged "the need for enforcement on the illegal side" of this equation. Uh-oh. So that's how this works. Apple makes its money, the desperate record companies get their cut, and the war on music piracy goes on, where the record companies sue thousands of college students for downloading MP3s. The record companies will invade the privacy of millions of citizens, calling them pirates, while lobbying for legislation that could allow them to crash computers, break file sharing networks, and generally take away as many privacy rights of innocent music lovers that the courts will allow. These frantic record companies are so hell-bent on preserving their creaky old business model that they are willing to trample whomever they can to insure that their profitable gravy train keeps rolling into the station. Is this the kind of society that we want -- where people's rights are violated to save the hides of greedy record executives?
Even though the iTunes Music Store seems bound for success, there's still a big problem here. I've read numerous analyst reports, press reviews, mainstream newsmagazine articles and comments of users so far, and all are gushing about how wonderful this new music service is. Am I the only one who sees its obvious, glaring flaw? I think it looks so good because what came before it was so pathetic -- first, the record companies hiding their collective heads in the sand, hoping it would all go away, then taking laughable legal action, and then the goofy, restriction-infested download services like PressPlay and Listen.com that have turned out to be nothing but dismal failures -- all because of one characteristic of our species: When given the choice of paying for something or getting it for free, people will choose the free route, especially if millions of others are doing it. It's human nature.
What does this portend for us, the content creators? Well, it looks to me like it spells trouble. I really don't know how to solve this problem -- I wish I could wrap this editorial up in a neat little package with my own original solution at the end. But maybe, just maybe, if we don't make the same mistakes the record companies made early on, like selling their products for about three times what they should really cost, and ignoring or trying to destroy any new technology, this problem can be avoided by the film and content creation industry. But I don't really think that's going to do it. There seems to be no way to solve this problem, Steve Jobs and his uncanny salesmanship notwithstanding -- unless, of course, human nature itself can indeed be altered by a computer company in Cupertino, California. I wish it could, but I think not.
Digital Media Net Executive Producer Charlie White has been writing about new media and digital video since it was the laughingstock of the television industry. A technology journalist and columnist for the past nine years, White is also an Emmy-winning producer, video editor, broadcast industry consultant and shot-calling television director who has worked in broadcasting since 1974. Talk back -- Send Chazz a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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