Columns, Opinion

KAZI: Keep on rockin’ with free MP3s!

I love touching strangers, but strangers don’t like touching me. So what I do is walk around with a sign saying ‘FREE HUGS!” People assume it’s some kind of faith or marketing thing. About once a day some joker says ‘Why should we free Hugs, what did Hugs do?’ They are the ones I don’t touch.

When you give someone a hug, you don’t lose a hug: they gain one. It’s not like letting your roommate wear your boxers, and then he steals them. Unless you go commando, in which case your SpongeBob has no square pants.

These days, books, music and movies are like hugs. You get them from strangers, you give them to strangers, and since they don’t exist necessarily in a physical copy, you can give them to someone else without losing yours.

This has been the working business model for media distribution for almost a decade now. I know, I know, most of you guys were twelve when Napster happened. Lars Ulrich isn’t the puppet master who betrayed the tape-trading ethos but rather a sorry drummer who collects modern art. This is old news. I should have talked about Iceland’s lesbian prime minister (no North Pole explorations for her!) or the octuplet mom (Spiderman fan).

But the Recording Industry Association of America doesn’t want to accept this model. I was writing about this six years ago as a junior, and I’m still writing about it now in my final semester. Outmoded concepts of copy protection are predicated on the belief that media is intrinsically tied to physical copies.

The market moves on, even if sellers want to maintain their stranglehold on distribution using legal terror tactics. So the poem goes:

There was a young man called Thelonious,

Who wanted some songs harmonious;

But he wanted his music free

So he downloaded an MP3

So now he’s a pirate most felonious.

There are two sides to this story. The right side is what I’m saying (of course), that the RIAA is a bunch of incompetents who only survive through inertia and leftover muscle. Most bands and musicians agree with me, including MC Hammer (probably). The wrong side is the RIAA. It acts like it doesn’t like people, and if you go to a party with it, you can’t hang with anyone else.

I believe in Harvey Dent, I believe in market forces and I believe the RIAA’s problems are self-correcting. We started with no MP3 distribution, and then Napster came along. We wanted an MP3 store; we got iTunes. We wanted portable MP3 players and behold: iPod. (These are the most popular iterations. I have a Grundig MP3 player from 1999 with two 16 MB card slots.) We had digital rights management for a while, which keeps you from copying your music. With DRM, it’s easier to steal music than to buy it. But now, even iTunes (the world’s biggest music store) got rid of DRM.

The white market has finally caught up to the technology that the gray market’s been using since 1999.

I don’t mind the RIAA being vulture manqu’eacute;’eacute;s. That’s their job. But they held back technological progress by a decade! What with Moore’s Law and everything, that’s as much as ten years!

What would I do, if the RIAA made me chairman? I would invest heavily in developing storage technology so that we have roomier flash storage. (Hard drives are heavier and have moving parts. The netbook phenomenon is doing this for flash drives already.) I would try to make portable storage limitations immaterial. It’s not that difficult. Being totally arbitrary, I’d say most people would be satisfied with 64 GB.

Next, I’d popularize a lossless audio codec. A lossless doesn’t sacrifice any sound quality for reduced file size. A Free Lossless Audio Codec is the leading lossless format. A FLAC file is three to five times bigger than MP3 but sounds better if you have very sensitive ears. More importantly, it’ll sound better ten years down the line when your speakers can play the difference. (Most speakers can’t, today, but let’s pretend we’ll still listen to FLACs ten years down the line.)

Third, I’d make an irresistible one-time offer to all fans of music. Target market: everybody. Set an arbitrary one-time fee, say $500, and offer digital downloads of your entire existing music collection (compact discs, cassettes, LPs) plus a hundred albums, in FLAC, within a year. This would only apply to the year that my digital market rolled out. This is not an original idea.

I’ve spent less than one hour thinking about this business model, and it’s definitely more workable than what the RIAA is doing now. But I lied about something. If I were chairman, I wouldn’t think about flash drives! I’d call Katy Perry and say, ‘Hey babe, wanna taste my cherry ChapStick? You won’t lose a kiss. We’ll both gain one.’

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