Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Oscars and The Day The Music Died

The last time I got pulled over for exceeding the speed limit, a friend and I were going about 63 and on our way down to Maryland to see Billy Joel with another friend. Being that Maryland has state troopers who are only slightly more personable than most Colombian rebel death squads, I wasn't as surprised as I probably should have been. When I explained to Joey Bag O'Donuts that I was simply moving along with the rest of traffic, his emotionless response -- "License and registration, please" -- was the end of the discussion.

Today, I rarely find myself behind the wheel of a car; mostly, I find myself behind a bus driver or a cab driver. In lieu thereof, then, the "Everyone is doing it, I was just keeping up" excuse is perhaps a viable excuse for online file-sharing, but if at all, that viability is disappearing by the day.

I came across a recent article on CNN that highlighted this very fact. File-sharing has increasingly become part of our modern technological model; once the next high-speed advances vis-a-vis internet access become the norm -- perhaps not farther off than another few years -- we'll be able to download full-length, high-quality DVD's. For the time being, however, the majority of us -- those who download stuff online -- will be relegated to downloading a track or an entire CD's worth of music. There are several issues with legit music downloads, of course; downloading stuff from Apple's iTunes is simple, but the quality of those downloads is only mediocre, and more importantly, they only play through iTunes and/or the iPod. There are other avenues for legal downloads, but those are suspect, quirky, and are billed in bunches (either as a ten-pack or more of tracks or as a monthly download/membership fee). In short, the options for legal music downloads are underwhelming at best.

It's no shock that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has gone bananas over the lost revenue that illegal downloading has cost its industry; with the recent bankruptcy and disappearance of an institution, Tower Records, it's increasingly clear that people don't need the actual CD in their hands in order to enjoy music. Further, the RIAA sees that people would prefer to download a so-so quality version of a single than pay $18 for the CD with that track and 11 others. So their response to file-sharing has been predatory and vicious, and understandably so. People have found a way to circumvent the institutions which previously decried we pay $15 or more for a disc filled mostly with stuff with which we were disenchanted. Gone are the days people will buy an entire disc for that one elusive track; and while that, on some level, could eradicate or at least question the validity or usefulness of albums/discs as a whole, the real concern should be with the RIAA and their future.

While the RIAA has predicted the dangers of file-sharing by quoting stats showing record sales are down in a mjor way (with the fall of Tower Records, how could anyone argue?), I wonder whether this phenomenon -- file-sharing -- is the cause of the RIAA's problems, or a result thereof. To wit, if cd's were filled with good stuff -- on the level of the last several releases by Foo Fighters, Audioslave, Tom Petty, Pete Yorn, et al -- I don't imagine I'd consider skipping the store experience, online or otherwise. My personal distaste with the music industry these days isn't the exorbitant prices of CD's but instead the quality -- or lack thereof -- of most of what's on store shelves. Going after the nation's university students, of course, is one way to attack this problem, as indicated above; however, the arbitrary persecution of a few students at each of 250 universities across the country isn't going to stop the phenomenon. It certainly won't endear anyone to the RIAA any more than they already are; and judging by the mentality of modern youth, I imagine rather than extinguishing that fire, it will only make it burn hotter and bigger.

At some point, someone -- an individual, an entity, or an entire generation -- will finally challenge the RIAA and hopefully inspire both them and the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) to revisit the issue of copyrights and file-sharing. Despite the lack of high-high-speed internet, a casual search for the five nominees for Best Picture yielded about 500 unique, legitimate sources to download same online, illegally. Now that the RIAA has chosen its path -- and, in my opinion, chosen unwisely -- the MPAA, on this Oscar night, may want to pay attention to what is actually happening and react in an effort to cure the problem rather than persecute -- and prosecute -- it.

What I find interesting, of course, is of the five best-picture nominees, I enjoyed The Departed immensely but didn't bother seeing any of the other four, although Little Miss Sunshine is supposed to be great (and Dreamgirls, a non-nominee, was also supposed to be great). So Hollywood, while you lament decreasing profits and empty theater seats, blame Denon, Yamaha, Sony, Panasonic, Phillips and Samsung -- the manufacturers who drive home theater systems' prices into the ground -- and crappy movies and not people who are downloading DVD's. That problem won't be a reality for several more years, whether or not excessive, inhibitory copy-protection measures are implemented (didn't work with macrovision, etc.).

Hopefully, someday -- somehow -- the RIAA, and the MPAA as well, will focus on improving their products rather than prosecuting their duplication and improving the quality of the products themselves in lieu of their copy-protection.

This scenario is about as likely as Charlie Sheen receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award for his role in Navy Seals; but I like to think the glass is half-full even when it's nearly empty.

Nuke some popcorn, dim the lights, and enjoy the show!

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