Monday, December 22, 2008

"Sink or Swim!" sayeth the Pirates of Cydonia

Hi, my name is Wounded Possum…and I am a pirate. YAAARRRR! Like it or hate it, I’m an avid rabid downloader. So let’s first address the elephant in the room and lay out the ethical dilemma behind music piracy:

True or False? Piracy = Theft
My answer? False, as illustrated in the diagram shown below.

Not only do I feel that piracy is not theft, but I believe music file sharing is the ultimate free advertising tool available to all artists…everywhere. A) It is no secret that the large majority of revenue from CD sales is never seen by artists and instead is gobbled up by record companies. Lyle Lovett has never seen a single red cent from an album sale through his Universal record deal inked out in 1985 (link). Those that DO actually profit from record sales see very little cash. B) There are several studies that show that record sales have greatly benefitted from The Piracy Era. The graphs shown here illustrate incredible spikes in album sales in the late 90s and early 00s, in the absolute height of the download age. Side note…I’ve never managed to win this argument against designers or artists. Their views on “intellectual property” are entirely different than anyone else’s. So if you are in this camp…I’m sorry.

After the initial boom and mass hysteria brought on by Napster and other early P2P file sharing services, the music industry panicked. Instead of indentifying the wave of the future, waxing its board, and hanging 10 straight to Profitsville, it decided to defiantly wade into the sea, beat its head against swells, and try to sue the wave. The mass foot-stamping chaos created by the music industry, and a VERY select few musicians, resembled a three-year-old rich kid going full-on Smeagol on the living room floor because his toy truck was Hasbro and not Tonka. It’s still a freaking truck…the source might be different, but the trucks are equally rad.

We, the people, saw the tantrum and reacted. Instead of using P2P as a new vehicle to preview and find music, we decided to snub the record label suits and pirate their product en masse. And by “we” I mean “I.” Bottom line, if I want to support an artist directly I’ll buy a ticket to their show. Or if it’s an indie artist on an indie label I’ll absolutely buy the disc. Indie labels take care of their people. A good percentage of my favorite bands are all taper-friendly anyhow and fully dig the digital revolution.

“Come and gather ‘round people wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown, and accept it that soon you’ll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin’, then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’.” -- Bob Dylan

Everyone was slow to change, but those that have are reaping the benefits. iTunes,, Last.FM, Pandora, Napster, and shrewd individual musicians have all adopted ways to help experience music inexpensively or free. The times are a-changin’, and only the quick and open-minded will stay afloat.

I found this article today on news that addresses a new industry shift, thanks to the Guitar Hero and Rock Band franchises. It’s no secret…I’m a gamer and a fake-plastic-instrument junkie. Last May I was in Chicago for the National Restaurant Association food show. This is the “who’s who” for any self-respecting industry player in the food business. Coca Cola had a ginormous booth with a couple dozen sales reps floating in the area, handing out frosty beverages. Additionally, they had set up a 50ish” flat screen television and an XBOX 360 with Guitar Hero. I walked past the booth and saw two fellow industry professionals battling out to “School’s Out” on medium difficulty and they were tanking. Hard. “Bong, bing, dang, crash, bonk.” Note after note. So I weaseled my way up toward the front of the small crowd that had formed and watched. As the song ended, one of the suits handed me the guitar and said, “Give it a shot, it’s kind of fun.” “Ok, I’ll give it a try.” I fired up “Knights of Cydonia” on expert difficulty and shredded my way to a 5-star, 94% finish. By the time the song was over I had a gallery of spectators that would rival Tiger Woods putting for the win on the 18th at Augusta. I handed the controller back to the guy, whose jaw was to his knees, “what, do you play this for a LIVING?” “Nope. I have a 6-year old kid that plays.” And I walked away.

Thirty something business professionals play video games. Guitar Hero is the new squash.

Musicians are now starting to greatly benefit from the fake plastic rocker (FPR) games. That article, again linked here, suggests some incredible statistics:

• Many songs' sales have more than doubled after release in one of the games through individual download sales.
• Bands control revenue, NOT labels, due to image likeness and licensing deals that apply to FPRs.
• FPR sales more than doubled this year, $1.9 billion in 12 months.
• Aerosmith made more money off the June release of "Guitar Hero: Aerosmith" than either of its last two albums.
• EXPOSURE is huge.
• Artists from Nirvana to the Red Hot Chili Peppers have seen sales of their music more than double after being released on the games.
• FPRs protect artists that release music straight to the games. You actually have to buy the music through the console instead of ripping and burning.
• Users have downloaded game-playable songs more than 55 million times, some free but most around $1.99 each, since the games launched, and new titles come out each week.
• Promoters have brought the game into the real world with a "Rock Band Live" concert tour. Concert tracking magazine Pollstar said 2,900 fans paid $25 to $36 each to rock the Event Center at San Jose State.

A fine display of change and ingenuity. The music industry has almost fully completed its shift from CDs to more interesting and accessible forms of product dissemination. The waters have grown. There will be many-a-sunken stone, but those that have started swimmin’ will remain dry, popular, and rich.


Dylan said...

The only musician I've seen to fully embrace today's shift in music technology is Trent Reznor of NIN. I'm always talking about the guy because of his genius musically but the guy is impressive because he is using all these things you've discussed to his advantage. Check into what he's done with the alternate reality games, free music, and incredible live shows. I think even if you're not a fan, you would be impressed.

PS. Wish I could have seen you shred to Knights. Killer.

Tyler said...

I'm definitely a Reznor guy. Pretty Hate Machine was sheer brilliance. Didn't like Broken or Downward Spiral, but Year Zero was great.