Posted on September 26, 2002 Posted by John Scalzi
Here’s an interesting question for you: Considering that the music industry essentially dictates the shape of the youth culture, how can it be so thickheadedly clueless about talking to teens about file sharing? The latest music industry salvo in this direction is a Web site called MusicUnited.org, which is designed to bring home the point that nearly all file sharing is illegal and wrong. Let’s take a moment and discuss all the ways that this site is going to fail miserably.
1. It’s not a cool site. It’s not cool in its intent, of course, since its intent is to keep kids from doing something they want to do, which is to share files with each other. But you can get past that if you can get your message across. The site totally screws this up right from the beginning: One of the headlines on the front page says of file sharing: “It’s illegal and it’s a drag!”
A drag? I mean, good Lord. I’m 33 and I winced when I saw that. It immediately calls to mind your junior high health teacher trying to use hep slang to tell you about why drugs are bad. The worst thing an adult can ever do when speaking to “the kids” is try to use current slang and fail (the second worse thing is to use it and use it correctly, and yet still sound like you have no clue). The site immediately sets itself up to be mocked purely on the basis of how it presents its message, which means the message won’t even get considered.
2. The site threatens. Despite the nice (but too conservatively-designed) graphic design, the textual tone of the site is one of distinct and total menace. Every bit of text reinforces ominously that file sharing is illegal (and wrong), and that there are severe penalties if you’re caught: The site’s favorite bit of trivia in this respect is the maximum penalty for copyright violations, which is five years in the stony lonesome and a $250,000 fine. “Don’t you have a better way to spend five years and $250,000?” asks the site.
Please. The minute the music industry actually ever pressed for the maximum sentence for copyright violations to be imposed on an actual teenager is the minute the shit really hits the fan. No one in their right mind believes that the penalty for a college student downloading the White Stripes album from Kazaa should be half a decade of prison rape and being traded in the exercise yard for a carton of Kools. If the RIAA actually pressed for this for a single casual downloader of music, the backlash of public opinion would destroy the music industry. They know it, and more importantly the kids know it, too. Waving around a big threat stick when you have no ability to use it makes you look sad, desperate and weak, which is certainly no way to get a teenager to listen to you.
3. The site romanticizes file-sharing. The music industry is using the same style of rhetoric against file-sharing as responsible adults used against drug use in the 60s and 70s, during which time, you’ll recall, the kids made drug use pretty much the cornerstone of youth culture. Because anything that really pisses off the grownups is worth doing more than once.
Now, this is not going to be an exact analogy, and thank God for that, since the last thing the world needs is a Cheech & Chong-like pair of wacky file sharers making movies about ripping off the music industry. But it’s good enough, and is certainly more than enough to make the kids feel that by downloading Vanessa Carelton, they’re striking a blow against the Man, or whatever it is the kids are calling “the Man” these days.
The site additionally compromises its position by featuring an area that details the civil and criminal penalties parents can face when teens download files, thereby informing the kids that here is yet another way that they can get back at their parents for having birthed them and forcing them to grow up in suburbia. Good move.
4. The site picks the wrong musicians to plead its case. On the site and in a newspaper ad that runs today, the music industry hauled out the stars to make its point, featuring quotes by Britney Spears, Nelly, Dixie Chicks and (wait for it) Luciano Pavarotti. This is supposed to reflect the depth of diversity of the musicians want you not to share files. The problem is, each of these artists is a multi-platinum artist whose net worth is in the millions. Britney Spears is worth over $100 million personally, as she noted recently in a People interview. The kids are not going to be sympathetic to a bunch of millionaires complaining they money is being taken from them. I know this because I’m not sympathetic to them.
The sort of musicians who should be highlighted in a campaign like this are the ones who actually will get hurt by file sharing: New musicians, musicians with smaller followings, musicians who aren’t already millionaires. The Web site features a couple of these, hidden so far down that their quotes are buried. But you tell me, which of these quotes is more compelling to you?
“Would you go into a CD store and steal a CD? It’s the same thing, people going into the computers and logging on and stealing our music. It’s the exact same thing, so why do it?” — Britney Spears
“I live with my drummer and guitarist and we have no money. Our survival is based solely on the purchase of our music. Music is not free. Even the street performer gets a dime in his box.” — James Grundler, Singer/Songwriter, Member of Paloalto.
Personally, I think the “Dude, I’d like to eat” line from a struggling musician carries rather a bit more moral weight than the “Golly, it’s like stealing from a CD store!” line from a 20-year-old woman who has more money than she can reasonably expect to spend in a lifetime. If nothing else, the kids who want to be musicians will feel closer to the situation of the guy in Paloalto than to Britney.
The final problem, however, is one that the music industry made for itself, which is widely-held perception that music is both absurdly expensive and that the vast majority of the money that gets paid for a CD goes to everyone but the people who actually make the music. The reason for the perception is that it’s true. Why should a kid believe that $18 is a fair price for a CD when he or she can burn one at home for about 50 cents? The economics of record contracts are now common knowledge as well, and when a kid realizes that his or her favorite band can sell millions of CDs and still be in the hole to the record company, there hardly seems to be an incentive to support a system that appears to screw the people who make the music.
The site notes that making an album these days can cost $1 million or more, but this doesn’t argue against pirating music, it argues against spending so damn much to make a record. I review indie albums every week on my IndieCrit site, and the sound quality of a sizable percentage of those recordings rivals anything you’ll hear from a major label. I can guarantee you those indie artists aren’t spending a million making their CDs. They’re also not to blame for creating a system of promoting music that requires an outlay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get music added to the playlists of ever-more consolidated radio stations, which play ever-safer music.
I’m not suggesting the kids are striking a blow for artists rights by boycotting the unfair system. That’d be a little much. Most of them just like not having to pay for the music. It’s more that they can spend on video games. But it wouldn’t hurt if the music industry wasn’t perceived as a bloated, vaguely vampiric entity that appears to survive by sucking the life force out of the people who make the music that kids respond to.
If I were the music industry, I’d scrap the MusicUnited.org site and try for something that starts with the assumption that the kids aren’t the enemy and have to be threatened, but are actually reasonably intelligent people who might be persuaded to spend money to support their favorite musicians if it could be intelligently explained to them why this is actually a good thing to do. In the meantime, the site is the music industry equivalent of “Just Say No” — The right message, perhaps, but the utterly wrong way to say it.
Whatever Everyone Else is Saying