09 August 2009

The Onus Is on You, Mr. Record Man

See if this sounds familiar. Consumer spending is down, and rather than have the folks at the top of an industry re-adjust to a less stratospheric income, they whittle away the jobs of underlings and reign in the business's activities. Yeah, it could be any industry right now, but the music industry has had a head start on the economic meltdown. In many ways, it might be the perfect microcosm for understanding how misguided many of our business leaders have been these last several years. I'll leave that to the economists, though.

Instead, I'm taking a moment to address a controversial issue: piracy. Now, no one needs to lecture me about the negative impact that piracy has on the artists, the labels and the whole industry. I have, in fact, been rather outspoken in my support over the years of the RIAA's efforts to date to defend recording artists from file-sharers. However, I have recently stumbled upon a gray area. It has been there from the beginning, of course, but I'm just now reaching it myself so bear with me if this all sounds repetitious to you.

I have been rebuilding my music library over the last year or so, thanks to Half Price Books where I can regularly rescue a CD from the clearance section for the cost of downloading a single song. Sometime last year, I found the score album for Tomorrow Never Dies there for just $3.00. I grabbed it firstly because it's a James Bond soundtrack I didn't already have, but I was also conscious of the fact that it has been long out of print and regularly goes for anywhere between $50 and $100 on eBay. Why? Supply and demand; there was such a low expectation of demand when it went into print a decade ago that not many were pressed. Ergo, those of us who are Bond collectors or happen to be soundtrack collectors, flock to this title whenever we get the chance. In point of fact, this copy is the only one I have ever seen in person.

This got me to thinking, though, about the other James Bond fans who want to hear this music but can't. Wouldn't this be the perfect release for file-sharing? Whether I paid $3.00 to Half Price Books or $100 to an eBay seller, David Arnold (the composer) won't see one penny of the transaction because it's a secondary market sale; the original inventory has long since sold through, meaning all the royalty money to be had off this release has already been made. Now, Tomorrow Never Dies is entirely relegated to the collector market, where the seller is entitled to keep 100% of the sale price.

So, if I were to upload Tomorrow Never Dies and share it, other than the fact that I do not have the legal right to do so, what would be the economic impact? Ultimately, the only thing would be that the $50-$100 secondary market price would fall. And even that's speculation, because most of the people who would even be interested in such a release would prefer to have a tangible original rather than a digital clone. It would suffice and sustain such a fan until such time as he or she could purchase the original, but I don't know that sharing this music would really even deflate the collector market price much.

Ultimately, then, if the RIAA and involved parties wish to earn every last cent from Tomorrow Never Dies, it seems to me that they need to spend money to make money. In today's digital age, where the record labels have lived in fear of music being distributed digitally, it seems to me that they have entirely missed an opportunity. Surely it is far more reasonable for record labels to keep music "in print" digitally rather than manufacturing CD's and expecting vendors to clutter their limited rack space with a title for which there are so few potential buyers. All they need to do is put this music for sale on iTunes and then not only will they diffuse the argument in favor of sharing Tomorrow Never Dies, but they might just make some money in the process. Not everyone who wants this release can be as lucky as me to find it for a mere $3.00, you know.

Note to the RIAA: I have not, nor do I intend to, actually share this or any other music. Mostly because I'm too lazy to go to the trouble of uploading it, but partly because I agree that the copyright system must be protected. I trust, though, that my point is made that there is a responsibility on the part of the suppliers to meet demand.