Living in Oblivion

The music industry continues to live in denial as it insists on squashing digital music file sharing. Specifically, the RIAA recently filed lawsuits against three college students for operating campus file search software that faciliated file swapping on the campus network, presumably to help students find illegally shared music files.

Ironically enough, one of my coworkers did this in a semi-official capacity, setting up a Gnutella server in our office and advertising it to our student employees. The server was not set up to share music files. Instead, it was set up so that Stanford students could list it as one of their hosts when connecting to the Gnutella network. With Stanford students connecting to a common on-campus host, they would find each other instead of off-campus computers and take advantage of unlimited bandwidth between on-campus computers, reducing traffic travelling in and out of the campus network, traffic that uses very expensive bandwidth the university has to pay for. Realizing how much file-sharing does go on and how much it uses up network bandwidth (despite our packet-shaping efforts), the real aim of this little experiment was to decrease traffic between campus and the commodity Internet, a goal of any good university network and systems administrator. Apparently, the MPAA did not find the experiment as interesting and innovative as we did. They faxed a threatening letter to the university and the server’s network connection was promptly turned off (while most of us were away on Winter break). The decisive action was certainly a shock– while we have, in the past, shut off students’ network connections after the MPAA and RIAA notified us that they were illegally sharing copyrighted materials, staff network connections are rarely, if ever, shut down, especially not without notifying the staff member first. After meeting with many important people, including the Provost and Stanford’s in-house counsel, they decided it was a good idea to leave the server shut down. While Stanford maintains a liberal attitude toward network use, a university provided way to faciliate file-sharing didn’t go over so well.

Long after the fall of Napster, the battle continues. Personally, I think the music industry needs to get it together and realize that digital music is the future. They’re right– downloading files of music that you do not own is stealing. But that little reality isn’t going to stop the millions who are trading music today, no matter how many lawsuits they file. The underground network of music fans and computer geeks will always find a way. Before Napster, there was IRC and ratio FTP sites. After Napster, there’s Gnutella and Kazaa. It never ends. People want to be able to download music whether it’s a single song or an entire album. The real question is, are they willing to pay for it?

I have to admit– when I was a student, I downloaded music freely and outside of some Sting and Dave Matthews Band albums, I didn’t buy CDs. Why should I when I could download all the music I wanted, including yet unreleased albums, off of a high-speed Internet connection? But alas, that was when I had a lot more time and a lot less money on my hands. Now, it’s not worth it to me to spend an evening trying to get high quality copies of albums, even with a high speed connection. The real value behind Kazaa and other file-sharing technologies for me is that I can sample and explore. I can go through the playlists for KMEL and download songs I hear on the radio. I satiate my need for immediate gratification and if I really do like them, I try to download more songs from the album and in the end, might decide to just buy the entire album. It’s not worth it to me to sit there trying to download the entire album, checking if it’s the right song, checking if there are any skips or errors, renaming files, fixing ID3 tags, etc.

Additionally, I’m just getting better quality sound with CDs. Unfortunately, most MP3s out there aren’t encoded at 192 kbps or greater and when you listen to music on a higher quality sound system, you start to hear the drop in quality. If you really love music, you’ll opt for getting the CD so you can hear it at its highest quality.

Of course, sometimes I don’t buy the album. Why? Because I only like one song on the album and I don’t want to shell out $20 for one song. And if I couldn’t try out the music beforehand and ended up buying an entire CD that I didn’t like, the neo-Nazi return policies of music stores would leave me SOL. Honestly, even before file-sharing, I didn’t buy CDs that often because of this very predicament.

Or what about when I get nostalgic and I have to hear that Rick Astley song that’s been playing in my head all day? I certainly don’t want to go buy the entire album or even a compilation album of other 80’s and 90’s hits. If I want a compilation, I’ll make it myself– every person’s got different tastes when it comes to what makes a good mix CD. But for those particularly hard to find songs, it might take me a while to find a high quality, no skip, no error, correct version of the song I’m looking for. If the music industry could provide me with that service, I would definitely be willing to pay 50 cents or $1 for that convenience and guarantee.

Still left to draw people to P2P networking are the really rare files– recordings of live performances, special remixes or editions of songs, etc. I don’t really know how you would get around this. I used to do traditional tape-trading, starting with actual cassette tapes and moving to CDs, but that requires a lot of finding out who has what, negotiating trades, mailing stuff all around the country, and waiting anxiously for your stuff to arrive, provided it doesn’t turn out to be a bad trade and you’re left with nothing. The Internet is a great way to trade live recordings of shows, legal or otherwise, and it’s the only place to get really rare versions or performances of songs.

Of course, the irony of all of this is that I don’t think file-sharing really affects CD sales. The rise of file-sharing coincided with the fall of the economy and while the music industry might think that file-sharing is the cause of their drop in sales, it might want to consider the fact that Americans are suffering from a very real recession and have little money to spend on music, much less anything else. Additionally, while my friends might be the exception to the rule, most students who download illegally shared files still end up buying CDs. The whole proposition that digitial music provides an effective way for people to try out music and then motivate them to go and buy the entire CD actually does work.