Fiddling While the Music Burns

From When Pigs Fly: The Death of Oink, the Birth of Dissent, and a Brief History of Record Industry Suicide, by Demonbaby:

In this sense, Oink was not only an absolute paradise for music fans, but it was unquestionably the most complete and most efficient music distribution model the world has ever known. I say that safely without exaggeration. It was like the world’s largest music store, whose vastly superior selection and distribution was entirely stocked, supplied, organized, and expanded upon by its own consumers. If the music industry had found a way to capitalize on the power, devotion, and innovation of its own fans the way Oink did, it would be thriving right now instead of withering. If intellectual property laws didn’t make Oink illegal, the site’s creator would be the new Steve Jobs right now. He would have revolutionized music distribution. Instead, he’s a criminal, simply for finding the best way to fill rising consumer demand. I would have gladly paid a large monthly fee for a legal service as good as Oink – but none existed, because the music industry could never set aside their own greed and corporate bullshit to make it happen.

It often gets said (including in the above article) that the music industry sleep-walked through a major moment of fate selection when they blew off Shawn Fanning’s offer to legalize napster and chose to sue him instead. It usually goes on to say that since napster’s demise, and because of the technical requirements necessary to avoid repeating napster’s fate no single filesharing network has ever grown up to be as comprehensive or user-friendly. If Oink truly was “unquestionably the most complete and most efficient music distribution model the world has ever known”, maybe we blew another one of those moments, a few weeks ago when Oink was cease-and-desisted.

I didn’t have an Oink membership, but I nagged a friend to dig stuff up there when I couldn’t find it through my own sources. It was indeed scary fast and scary complete. One thing the Oink raids demonstrate: the ‘piracy’ police or their corporate puppeteers may be more clueful than previously assumed. Oink was not a well-known thing, if the cops or the music industry types were aware of the special place it occupied in the music distribution ecology, then maybe they have their fingers closer to the pulse than most of their behaviour suggests. Does that mean they’ll be attaining late ’90s awareness eventually? Time, and probably lots of it, will tell.

As Cory Doctorow tells us again and again (and again) bits are only going to get easier to copy. Any business model which depends on limiting copying of files is contra-indicated. Networks are not getting smaller, computers are not getting less efficient. Music executives tell us that DRM is there to “help keep honest users honest” (actual quote). I made the mistake of buying my files from an online music store once. Just listening to the music on the devices and in the places I wanted to required applying esoteric and illegal unlocking software, the effectiveness of which depended on the time since the last DRM version release. Years later I discovered I couldn’t burn the damn things to a CD, just in time to not play them on a radio show. Both then and now, the lesson I learned wasn’t to keep buying music, it was to keep not buying music, since the free stuff is better.

I listen to a lot tracks once or twice to decide if they’re keepers. Imagine if I had to pay for each one! At the online store rates (which, by the way, are ridiculous) I would be paying literally thousands of dollars a year for music I would never again listen to. Therefore I wouldn’t, therefore I wouldn’t find the music that I do love, and music would be a much smaller part of my life. Lord knows 99.99% of the radio stations aren’t auditioning anything I might want to hear again. And if they did, it isn’t as if I could find it at the pop-craptaculous music stores I’m sometimes startled by in malls. The system is, in a word, borked.

The saving grace of this capitalism thing is supposed to be a emergent genius for innovating to meet consumer desires. In 10 years of turmoil the only genius innovation the music industries have debuted is the assembly-line litigation of music listeners. When someone finally did get around to, imagine this, attempting to distribute music as files (which is not quite the point actually, but probably a precursor to the point), it wasn’t even a music industry player, but a computer company that did it. And now that company is focusing mostly on locking in customers to their little music ecology through restrictive licensing and vertical integration of formats, software and hardware. Cheers. In a sense, they are coming back around to the music industry they used to challenge. Leveraging monopoly status to force customers into purchasing inferior or actively antagonistic products seem to be the real genius of modern capitalism.

(Hey, didn’t I predict some of this like 4 years ago? Why don’t people listen to me?)

While it was still operating, the heaviest Oink user I knew was a member of an up-and-coming pop band signed to a major label. The buzz in the file-sharing scene now seems to be: 1) Oink? What was that?, 2) I was part of Oink and I’m fired up to build the next, bigger one, and 3) Oh yeah, how do I get to be a part of that action? Users are going to keep on building these castles up and the industry is going to keep on knocking them down, but they’ll get bigger every time. And each time they do, the standard for how well an industry replacement would have to function to draw users back into a paying model will get higher. We need to figure this out. Artists have to get paid. As the conventional distribution channels crumble the necessity of finding a stable income for artists grows. Each year the industry fiddles while their weird little Rome burns, the more I hope that a solution comes soon, and the more I hope that the contemporary industry has nothing to do with it.

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