Monday, January 20, 2020

Did the Record Companies Win?

At one time record companies were so afraid of piracy, that they tried to spike new digital formats.  Eventually they lost this battle - but did they win the war?

I was watching one of my favourite shows - "Techmoan" which features a British chappy who buys all sorts of obsolete technotrash on eBay and then fixes it and shows us how it worked.  What is interesting about the show is (a) how expensive electronics were back then, (b) how yesterday's "must have" tech accessory is today's eBay closeout item, and (c) how for every ten "next big thing!" technologies, only one - at best - becomes popular, profitable, and survives, and even then, for a limited time.

He was reviewing Digital Audio Tape - or DAT as they called it, which got the record companies in a tizzy.  They went so far as to push through a new law in 1998 that made it illegal to circumvent digital copyright protection measures, such as encoding techniques.   They were that paranoid about people mass-producing bootleg copies of albums that they pushed this through - and forced makers of DAT equipment to install copy-protection software so no more than one copy could be made.

Their fear was real - and imagined.   They felt that if one could make a digital "perfect" copy of a recording, one could make infinite copies.   Of course, with DAT, this meant it would take an hour or more to make each copy, as the machine only ran at one speed.  So their fears were not justified.   And besides, CD's were already a thing, and within a few years, you could "rip" an audio CD to your hard drive at 2x, 4x, 8x, or 16x speed - or faster - and put an entire library of CDs on your hard drive - and then on to your iPod, a generic MP3 player, or today on a memory stick or even on your cell phone.  My cell phone has over 10,000 songs stored on it.

As it turned out, DAT was not a threat to the music industry, but then again, their efforts insured it suffered a stillbirth.   Recordable CDs came out and there was no stopping digital content or digital copying.   And yet, as Mr. Techmoan points out, today you can't really find much in the way of consumer audio equipment that has a "record" feature on it.   Seems like a trivial thing, but there you have it.

Back in the day, we all bought our first cassette tape deck and some of those "high chrome" tapes that didn't have too much tape hiss.   Maybe this fancy "Dolby" thing would eliminate that, too.   The local "rock" station in Utica would play a new release album from start to finish with no commercial interruptions, telling audience members even when to hit the "record" button on their rape player!  Of course, the record industry put a stop to that, and DJ's started talking over the music at the intro and fadeout, which was the beginning of the end for FM, which turned form music radio to talky, talky, talky-de-talk-talk that it is today.

Back then, you could buy a cassette deck with dual drives, made expressly for copying tapes.   Put a recorded tape in one side, and a blank tape in the other and press "copy" and walk away.  Of course, it was time-consuming and each successive copy had more tape hiss than the previous one.  And oddly enough, few of us spent much time copying tapes.   Well, some did, but still, back then, a lot of vinyl records were sold (and more pre-recorded tapes would have been sold, if the record companies bothered to use quality tape).

Today, people stream music on their smart phones and play it though a bluetooth speaker.   Either we live with Pandora ads (which slowly get worse and worse, as the company struggles to make money, like most everything else on your phone) or you pay a monthly fee to be ad-free.   You can download tons of music for free, store it on your computer, your phone, a memory stick, your iPod (who has those anymore?) but why bother?    It is just easier to click on the icon of your favorite "music service" who plays things you've "liked" in the past, or thinks you migh like based on its "AI" algorithms (which are hardly intelligent) or, in the case of Pandora, songs with low royalty rates that they sneak in, like filler in a meatloaf (disclaimer, I like filler in meatloaf, provided it isn't sawdust.  Meatloaf with just meat in it is gross.  And no I am not talking about the singer - that is one Meatloaf I don't care for, outside of Rocky Horror).

So what happened?  How did the record companies end up winning in the end?  Maybe it has a lot to do with Blockbuster video.   When VCR tapes and laser discs were all the rage, many of the studios thought that people would want to buy movies for home use, to play again and again.   While this may be true of some titles - for example, we own every James Bond movie ever made, The Great Escape and Driving Miss Daisy - other movies barely merit watching once.   Most of Star Wars movies are pretty forgettable, and even the original is hard to find in unmolested condition - and the CGI "enhanced" version is an abomination.

So renting movies became a thing, first with blockbuster, and later on, with Netflix.   And when streaming became a "thing" then mailing DVDs back and forth fell from favor.  Turns out, we wanted to watch things, but not necessarily own them.   Just because you like it, doesn't mean you want to marry it.

And so it is with music.   When I ripped my entire CD library to my computer (and that of friends and acquaintances) I realized there was a lot of music I bought that I didn't really like, or didn't like anymore.   You would buy an entire "album" for one song, only to realize you didn't like the rest of the song.   Mark liked this song he heard on the radio, and bought the CD, thinking it was an album of similar songs.   Turns out, it was a heavy metal band that somehow accidentally made a Simon-and-Garfunkle folk-type hit.   They sold a lot of albums,but not many of their new fans liked the rest of their music.  In fact, the band broke up and they're pretty bitter about it - as they became a punchline to a joke in the heavy metal scene, and their metal music never really took off.

So you have this album on your iPod and if you hit "random" play, their annoying heavy metal sound comes up on occasion and you have to hit "skip" rather quickly.   Other artists seemed popular at the time, but later on in life, are hard to listen to.  The Talking Heads were all the rage among the avant-guard in the 1980's, but today, just sound silly and unlistenable.  Times change, and musical tastes change.  The good stuff plays on, the bad falls to the wayside.

The fears of wholesale piracy never really were realized.  Oh, sure, there were file-sharing sites like Napster and there are still "dark web" (which is a silly phrase) sites were you can download bootleg copies of songs or even movies.   But why bother?   For the average person, the hassle of downloading the correct software and figuring out how to use it is like trying to install Linux on your computer - when you can buy a whole new computer for $300 with Windows 10 installed, it is a non-starter for most Americans.

So the record companies won, for the most part.  The artists themselves gave up a long time ago - much of the money made in selling and licensing music goes to the record companies, not the artists, who make the bulk of their income through touring these days.  Those "farewell tours" in mega-stadiums are the real money-makers, not eleven cents you pay to own a song on iTunes.

It turns out, we really weren't interested in owning music, so much as listening to it.   Pirated music might be a thing, but I think for the most part, the pirates who are pirating are doing it for the experience of piracy, not necessarily for the music.  And no, they aren't making much money - if any - in the piracy business, as least in the Western world.