Tuesday, 15 July 2008

MAC281 essay help

I've been AWOL for a while and this post is mainly for the benefit of my students attempting one of the essay questions I set for MAC281 Cybercultures on the music industry in the age of the Internet, so apologies if it is a little niche. I've just typed a long email response to one of my students and I figured instead of retyping the advice every time someone asks about the question, I'd post the advice here and refer them to it.

The essay question at hand goes like this:
“Illegal file-sharing has been a key factor in the recording industry’s 22% worldwide sales declines between 1999 and 2004 (Source: IFPI), and the halving in size of the British singles market over 1999-2004 (Source: BPI).” To what extent is file-sharing a response to the failings of an industry predicated upon an outdated business model?
For any of my students attempting this question I recommend the following:
  • The first place you should go is to WebCT/SunSpace for MAC281 in 2007-8 sem2 and download my lecture slides just to get an overview of the material and keep it fresh in your mind. (I will upload them to the web publicly later and link to them)
  • The second thing you should do is read the 2 articles I mention in the sessions in order to get a good overview of the major arguments:
  • - Andrew Leyshon, Peter Webb, Shaun French, Nigel Thrifty and Louise Crewe, 2005, ‘On the reproduction of the musical economy after the Internet’ in Media, Culture & Society, Vol. 27 (2): pp 177-209.
  • - Chris Rojek, 2005, ‘P2P Leisure exchange - net banditry and the policing of intellectual property’, in Leisure Studies, 24: 4, 357-367.
  • I also recommend that you visit the websites of the major bodies who act on behalf of the music industry:
  • - IFPI (global)
  • - BPI (UK)
  • - RIAA (US)
  • These sources are useful for getting an idea as to how the music industry functions, and also, how it looks to blame their decline in sales/profitability on the rise of the internet
  • For an alternate perspective to the music industry, it might be worth spending a little time reading some of the reports which appear on the 'pro'-filesharing (I use the term 'pro' loosely) sites like the ones below:
  • - TorrentFreak
  • - Zero Paid
  • - RIAA Radar
Once you've done that then you should have a wealth of material to help build an argument.

Now essentially this question is asking you to think about the way in which the present music industry is organised. My lecture notes cite the BPI which give a very short definition of how it works - 'find, fund, promote,' etc. This is a great starting point. You might want to contextualise the music industry today - its pretty easy to find figures on things like total sales data of things like CDs.

It would be handy if you could identify who the big music labels are and explain how they get their money - think of the typical cost of a new release CD - who gets the biggest cut, how much do artists make etc? With a little background digging you'll find that the music labels and the multinationals they are part of have an active interest in owning the intellectual property of artists, which they can then license to various groups:
  • - The PPL gather revenue from selling licenses to shops, bars, etc so that music can be played there and that the labels/artists get paid
  • - Every CD a consumer purchases is a license to play the music, not to OWN it (the labels OWN it, and they let us have a copy we can listen to - hence it is technically illegal to rip the legit CD to a computer in order to put it on our MP3 players!)
  • - Radio stations (both live and online like Last.FM) have to pay to play
  • - etc
The issue here is on ownership - the music industry is predicated on owning ideas (music) which is then sold as a license to all and sundry. The industry is always looking to make money from these licenses. Artists are lucky if they get a fair deal, but they need the support of big labels in order to get heard (or at least, this is how the old business model used to work)

In recent years, the profitability of music has declined (although some might dispute this - the BPI seem fine at the minute!). However, most of the blame is laid at the door of the internet which has made it very easy to made duplicates of an original copy and share them (as mp3s). What this has done is its effectively undermined the power of the record labels to control the distribution of music, and subsequently removed their powers to set prices for access.

In the past, if someone wanted to buy a CD of an obscure band they'd have to go through a big store like HMV and order it from a parent label and pay a premium. The easy availability of music on the web had radically threatened that situation. Now, if one person rips that CD to mp3 and then shares those files, there is no limit to the amount of times those files can be replicated. Bye bye goes the major label power to charge for access and claim profits.

The internet has transformed the way in which the music industry has to behave. You might argue that it took the industry too long to adapt. It took a computer firm to actually compete with the pirates (Apple's iTunes) by making choice and availability at affordable prices the new model. The majors labels are not very happy with iTunes (they see it as too big and powerful, owning too much of the new digital landscape), but they are attempting to reposition themselves in a new market place. You can now buy mp3s from places like Amazon and Play.com. You can still get music for free from the PirateBay.

The industry has done a few things to play catch up which are worth mentioning:
  • prosecution - it has attempted to catch pirates and make them pay in the courts
  • competition - the labels are looking to sell their music as mp3s in lots of places
  • platform convergence - the music industry is looking for new avenues to promote and sell music (think MySpace, the upcoming Facebook Music, Last.FM, Napster subscription, licensing songs for movies and games like Guitar Hero)
  • alternative distribution - some musicians (Radiohead, Girl Talk, Nine Inch Nails, etc) are even cutting out the major labels and selling direct to fans in order to cut out the major label middleman
All of these points are relevant. You need to ensure that your argument touches on these points. Mainly, you need to argue that the old business model wasn't suited to the new media environment. They are now beginning to realize that people want their music on MP3 as well as/instead of (?) CD. It might be worth mentioning the popularity of the iPod too - there is money in music, it is just a little less obviously hierarchically controlled than it used to be even less than a decade ago.

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