You read this rag in print or online? You buy music at Tower Records or iTunes? Wait, you still buy music?
You ain't heard? There's a revolution goin' on. The people are taking the power back, one song at a time. Napster may be gone, Grokster may have lost, but the downloading continues, to the tune of more than a billion songs a month, according to research firm BigChampagne.
In the last four years, the industry has seen its revenue drop 30 percent, but not without attempting to fight back. The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) has gone after peer-to-peer (P2P) software companies, winning a case against Grokster in U.S. Supreme Court.
They've also targeted individual file-swappers. Prior to last month, 17,000 music fans had been issued subpoenas by the RIAA in its attempt to stem the tide.
Effective? Hardly. That's out of an estimated 51 million P2P users in the U.S. alone.
This November, Sony-BMG also found itself on the wrong side of a poor strategy. The company was forced to recall 50 different CD titles (hundreds of thousands of copies) once it was discovered that the discs' copy-protection (anti-piracy) software unknowingly exposed users' computers to viruses. Executives initially tried to play it off, but the negative media coverage was relentless, and Microsoft went so far as to publicly declare Sony's encryption "spy ware."
These events have only served to exacerbate tensions between the music industry and its target audience. Music buyers are tired of overpaying for CDs with two good songs and a bunch of filler, while hearing horror stories of their favorite artists getting little or no money because of lopsided major-label contracts. The greedy major labels have been caught flat-footed by P2P and are lashing out to protect their product.
As a whole, record companies don't seem to be adopting new business strategies for the future, choosing instead to stay the course and fight back. Yet while they may understand copyright law better than most P2P-ers, they have consistently displayed a lack of knowledge about who their customers are and what they want.
Meet Christie Osborne, a 20-year-old junior at the University of San Diego. She's majoring in biochemistry and English and serves on the student government as the technical director of concerts, which puts her in charge of organizing sound production for all on-campus shows.
Not your typical sorority-girl sexpot, Christie's attractiveness comes more from a poised confidence and intelligence. She's the kind of girl who takes pleasure in staring down a room full of record company heads and bragging that she has 11,000 songs on her computer, and never mind where she got them.
This is what she gets to do as a member of the What's the Download advisory board, a kind of young-consumer consulting group chosen by the Recording Academy. The 12-member group ranges in age from 20 to 25, and was selected based on video applications from 70 semi-finalists.
Sounds geeky, but all they have to do is maintain a website (www.whatsthedown load.com) and give a handful of presentations at industry conventions and they're closer than most to scoring a "cool" job in or around the music industry. Hopefully that doesn't mean going all dark-side and shit, but for now these kids are OK.
I recently had the opportunity to sit in on two advisory board presentations, first at the National Association of Recording Merchants (NARM) convention in San Diego in August and, more recently, at the Digital Entertainment Media Expo (DEMXPO) in Los Angeles on Nov. 30.
Conventions are typically somber, boring affairs, even in this line of work, despite catered meals, open bars and the occasional musical performance. It's all about networking and familiar faces, which can make things strange for a journalist.
On the final day of NARM, following awkward morning performances by the Bellydance Superstars and R&B-er Kieran, an awards show for which no artists were present to claim their trophies and a technology roundtable discussion that would have put a meth-head to sleep, all 12 members of WTD took the stage and proceeded to chide, scold and bash nearly every "accomplishment" the couple hundred attendees had been championing the previous few days.
Not exactly exciting stuff, but it made an unprepared, captive audience tense and uncomfortable just as they were trying to wrap up the weekend. It was also a possible learning experience, as the group members were thoughtful, charismatic, outspoken and, most importantly, music geeks.
At DEMXPO, only five of the 12 were there: Osborne, Matthew Annerino, Robbie Halperin, Joy Mitchell and David Wurzburg. Someone also decided it was best not to have them speak in the keynote dinner spot, which was probably best.
They were set to do their thing in the same room and immediately following one of the more highly attended seminars, "Buzz Marketing." The seats filled up and the walls were lined, primarily due to the presence of Jamie Kantrowitz, vice president of marketing and communications at MySpace.
If you're not on MySpace by now, I'm not sure what to tell you. The social networking website has some 40 million members and ranked No. 15 in page hits for the entire U.S. in October. It's become one of the best marketing tools both for start-up bands and seasoned vets, creating a more personal and consistent-contact relationship between artist and fan.
So MySpace generated some buzz at the convention and Kantrowitz took the opportunity to drop that word approximately 384 times in about 45 minutes. The other panelists alternated between their own self-promotion and strategies for generating and retaining online visitors, mostly things that would increase website advertising dollars. It was, after all, a marketing discussion.
And having the young customers of WTD follow as a sales discussion makes a linear kind of sense. What makes less sense is how much the room had emptied out by the time they took the stage. All day, the conventioneers reeked of a squirmy desire to tap into an unused vein of capital flow. And now, their absence in the room was almost the physical embodiment of their disregard for the product and their patrons.
As it turns out, the five WTD members are more comfortable and confident, less full of bluster and more savvy than the full group was months earlier. But that doesn't mean they pull any punches.
"CDs should be $10. That's it."
"I need to hear more than a 30-second sample of a song."
"Yeah, I've downloaded before. But I spend more money on music than ever."
"I've been to too many shows that weren't worth my money."
"There are ways to get around the controls you put on CDs."
"The ROKR [music phone] sucks."
"I would have satellite radio right now if it wasn't so expensive."
The general message they seemed to be getting at was this:
We're not trying to steal from anyone, and this isn't a revolution. We want you to do better by us, because we're your best customers. But you'd better stop trying to sneak things past us, and start paying attention to what we want. Because now we have the tools to ignore you right back.
Problem is, the people who should have been listening were probably at an open bar somewhere.
To see what else the kids are saying, visit www.whatsthedownload.com.