Saturday, April 18, 2009
I was in a HMV record store on a recent Saturday in Toronto – the usual three-floor superstore, with lots of floor space etc. I went up to the classical department and then the jazz department, spent some time browsing in both and eventually bought $40 worth of CDs. I spent an hour in the jazz department and in that hour I was a) one of only six people there, and b) the only person who spent any money at all. There must have been over 1000 titles in the jazz section, and one guy behind the counter looking after it.
Even someone with the most basic grasp of economics (me!) can see that this level of sales is totally unsustainable. Remember that this was a Saturday – the busiest day of the week – and the $40 I spent in the jazz department was $40 more than anyone spent in the classical department in the time I was there. If you figure that the store took $40 an hour in the jazz department, then over an eight hour day they would have taken in $320. If you then factor in the cost of rent, light, heat, wages and the cost of buying the stock, you can see that this just isn’t going to work for much longer.
But it wasn’t just the minority musics that are suffering – as an experiment, on my way out I had a quick look at the ground floor, where all the popular stuff is kept – movies, DVDs, mainstream pop music etc. This was around noon on a Saturday, in a big city, in a shop in the city centre, and there were only twenty five people on that huge shop floor. When you take a live sample like that and add to it the recent bankruptcies of large chains like Tower it demonstrates that record shops are in terminal decline, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re gone, at least in their present form.
And what will take their place? I have to say I have no idea where the recording industry is going. Record companies are going bankrupt, as are record distribution companies. In the ‘current economic climate’ (to use the current popular phrase), this will only get worse. So, if the record shops go, and the record companies go, and the record distribution companies go – how will recorded music be sold. Or more to the point, at what stage will it just become uneconomical for musicians to record music?
We’re already heading that way – and I can’t understand why people can’t see it. There’s an incredible amount of support, both overt and implied, for the free downloading of music and free file sharing. Every time a file sharing website is taken to court by record companies, or movie companies, the media always portray the file sharers as the David versus the big bad Goliath of the record/movie industry. Just today a heavy sentence was placed on organizers of a website called ‘Pirate Bay’ and the report in the Irish Times headline says – ‘Pirate Bay may be dented but its ship sails on for more battle’. The language used - ‘sails on for more battle’ is typical of the media’s way of portraying the file sharers as swashbuckling underdogs, and the language in the main article uses more of the same. There is no space given to even the possibility that the file sharers and the people who use the sites are involved in theft. No, it’s the big bad record companies denying the ordinary man in the street the right to free music.
But where does the idea that there IS a right to free music come from? Does nobody see that if music becomes something which you can access in the same way that you can access water from a tap, it will eventually lose all its commercial value? If it reaches the point – and we’re getting there already – where there is no commercial value to making a recording, and where it actually costs you to make one, then musicians will simply stop recording.
Take the economics of small scale jazz recording for example. To produce 1000 CDs costs a minimum of between €2000-€3000, depending on what kind of art work you get, what kind of insert you use etc. The actual recording/editing/mastering will cost another €2000. So on average to produce a CD will cost the artist or record company about €5000. Since the record companies are going to the wall thanks to the decline of CD purchases, why would any jazz musician put up €5000 of their own money to make a CD when the public refuses to pay for recorded music anymore?
Musicians just won’t do it – it’s hard enough to make a living as a jazz musician without paying your own money to make recordings that can be stolen by those plucky people at Pirate Bay and their ilk and passed on for free to a public who feel entitled to use your work for their own entertainment without feeling any necessity to pay for it.
The free downloading of commercially produced music is wrong – it is theft. It is morally wrong, and it will kill the very thing it is exploiting. It makes no sense on any level, except that of greed. At a time when people have more disposable income than at any previous time in history, they demand that hard-pressed musicians give them their work for free. If you posit the idea that file sharing is wrong, the apologists for downloading always answer this with the response 'but you can't stop it', or 'everyone's doing it' - but these are answers to different questions! The fact that everyone is stealing your work doesn't help the musician whose work is being stolen, or make it any less immoral. This is still theft, no matter how many people are involved, and it's still morally wrong.
Websites like Pirate Bay, Napster and Kazaa are thieves, and the people who use their services to illegally download commercially produced music are thieves. And the thieves are bankrupting the people from whom they’re stealing - the musicians. Because ultimately it's the musicians who will and are paying the price of this theft - not the record companies. There never seems to be a recognition in this 'brave file-sharer versus evil record companies' scenario portrayed in the media, that ultimately it is the musicians who are being stolen from, and who are paying the ultimate price for the theft. Unless something changes, unless mealy-mouthed journalists stop being cowardly cheerleaders for theft, unless the public stop seeing themselves as being entitled to take the work of others for free, and conveniently ignoring the immorality of what they’re doing, then in the near future it’ll be all over.