Why the RIAA should love us
As the digital music conflict (read: the RIAA v. post-Napster file sharing) continues to pick up steam in the mainstream press, one key issue seems to be frequently omitted or forgotten: Quality. We all remember Neil Young’s attack on the compact disc format in the early ’90s. Let’s not revisit that argument—that CDs have inferior fidelity than good old fashioned records—as it’s now a moot point; CDs have triumphed and even record snobs have succumbed to the format’s convenience. (My record collection went into storage in a friend’s basement this year.) But what of mp3s?
It’s a fact: At common encoding rates, mp3 files have inferior sound reproduction than do CDs. Don’t believe it? Rip an mp3 of your favorite CD and play it next to the original on a decent stereo—you’ll hear the difference. For me, this came clearly into focus when I bought Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot after having lived with a copy burned from mp3s for eight months before the album was officially released. Yet it is this inferior format the RIAA claims is hurting CD sales, threatening the very viability of the record industry. At first glance its logic seems sound—why would someone pay for that Wilco CD when they already own a copy of it?
Yet I (and a hell of a lot of other people) did buy it, just as we bought records of music taped off the radio in our childhood, just as we bought CDs after friends had taped us fuzzy copies on boom-boxes. Do we always buy something we pirate? Of course not—some, perhaps even the majority, of this “stolen” music is garbage, destined to be taped over, forgotten, deleted, never to be listened to again. But the good music, the stuff that we want to listen to again and again—it is crucial to get the real thing, to own an original. Of course, we’re probably not the average music buyer. We’re music geeks; the RIAA would probably maintain that we don’t count. After all, we’re listening to Wilco, not Nickelback, and music conglomerates are usually disinterested in artists of the non-multi-platinum variety.
So does the typical music consumer care that mp3s are inferior to commercially distributed CDs? I’ll agree with the RIAA here: No, I’m sure most people are perfectly satisfied with their lo-fi digital copies. But why? Is it because the music industry has trained consumers to treat music as a commodity to be used and thrown away? After all, there will be another Britney, Celine Dion, or Linkin Park sitting in the endcap at Wal-Mart next month. The real threat to the music industry isn’t coming from the serious music fans—it comes from the casual radio listener who buys an album to listen to that one heavily-rotated song a few dozen times before losing interest and moving on to the next Top 40 hit.
Of course the problem with this is that all that junk, those cotton candy mega-hits, the songs most likely to be ripped and traded and then not purchased, they are what pay the bills for the rest of the music biz. Digital music is going to force the recording industry to rethink their business model and that’s what scares the fat cats of L.A.: Change. If the typical music consumer can freely obtain the disposable music that forms the foundation of the recording industry, the RIAA isn’t going to have anyone left to sell CDs to. Except us.