End of the Recording Industry

There is a lot at stake with the development of digital music and the ability to download it over the internet. One of the biggest confusions occurs when the Recording Industry Association of America discusses file-sharing as something that will end recorded music as we know it. If you listen to the RIAA, you are liable to believe that there will no longer be recorded music if file-sharers keep “pirating” music, but this is not close to the truth. Yes, major record labels could lose their dominance in the market place, but does that mean that music is dead? The RIAA has been claiming that the disintermediation provided by the internet will lead to the decline and ultimately the failure of the recording industry. The decline of the recording industry, however, is not the end of music. While the recording industry cannot exist without music, music can exist without the recording industry (even the music industry can exist without the recording industry).
Here’s a broad overview of how the “recording industry” has developed in the United States. First, music has been around for a long time before the existence of the recording industry, but we can trace the history of the recording industry to the Music Publishing Industry. The invention of the printing press allowed composers to claim ownership of their compositions through the application of copyrights. Copyright was a by-product of the development of the printing press and it is important to state that copyright at that time was a qualitatively different legal protection than it is today. Composers wrote music for musicians to perform (as is still the case in certain circumstances today). When music was composed and reprinted by the music publisher, charging a fee was the way that a composer could be compensated for producing a piece of music . Eventually, copyright ensured that the composer and publisher could be compensated for the performance of a piece of music.
When the gramophone was initially developed, the gramophone manufacturers needed to develop a market for the sale of the gramophone. Friedrich Kittler explains in “Gramophone, Film, Typewriter” how the transmediation of media changes not only the way we interact with media, but also how the law and businesses try to maintain power with the invention of new mediations . At first it was not clear what type of auditory commodity would work best for wide sale. Eventually, gramophone manufacturers started recording music to be played on their equipment; this continued through the electric record player of which RCA (Radio Corporation of America) was a developer and became a record producer. Part of this history is the history of the development of an expensive player commodity followed by the sale of a cheaper mediated commodity. The prevalence of high numbers of the mediated commodity makes it worth it for consumers to buy the player and once they have the player, they can continue to consume the mediated commodity. Of course this consumption logic works until a new player is developed, then all of the new mediated commodities need to be in the new format to get consumers to purchase the new player commodity.
The shift from printed music to recorded music is significant beyond the commodity logic because it is also a qualitative shift in the way we perceive the production of music. Recorded music changed what it means to compose, produce, reproduce and perform music, with that came a shift in the way that the judicial system interpreted copyright law. Frequently using legislation to bolster its position, the newly formed recording industry used copyright law to acquire the rights to its recording artists’ music; the acquisition of these rights did not happen immediately and it was a direct result of a fight that occurred between the recording industry and the music publishing industry. In the end, the recording industry won this battle and I am sure that commentators of that time bemoaned it as the downfall of the music industry.
These shifts and conflicts occurred throughout the Twentieth Century as 8-tracks replaced records, compact cassettes replaced 8-tracks, compact discs replaced compact cassettes and finally digital audio files (most frequently mp3s) replaced the CD. Along the way there were unsuccessful technologies that played minor roles in this historical narrative most notably the Digital Audio Tape (DAT) and the minidisc. Over the past decade there has been a debate on the role of digital reproduction of music in relation to copyright law; this debate has once again created a fundamental shift in how the judicial system and society perceive copyright law. This shift began in 1998 when President Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) into law following a unanimous vote in the Senate. Record companies realized the potential impact of digital music on the internet and preempted the judicial system’s interpretation of copyright law by securing legislation in Congress that would enhance their position.
In many ways, the DMCA was the result of lessons learned from the Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA) of 1992. The AHRA was passed at a time when CD burning technology was becoming available to consumers for personal use. Record labels were worried that the new technology would make pirating music easy and in turn ruin the recording industry. What the act did was permit the production of personal CD writing equipment by charging a royalty for all blank CDs and writers sold. The royalties were given to music publishing agencies and more importantly to Record Labels through the RIAA. This means that the major record labels get a percentage of the profits for every blank CD and CD writer sold in the United States regardless of whether the equipment is actually used to copy music. To this day record labels still make money off the sale of CD writing equipment.
The passage of the AHRA was mostly born of a fear stemming from the high quality of digital reproduction. Reproducing music in analog is always accompanied by a decrease in quality. A copy of a copy does not sound like the original and it progressively degrades in quality with each copy along with each play. Digital music, on the other hand, can be continually reproduced with negligible decreases in quality. The fear has been that there will be a declining amount of music purchased in relation to the availability to digital reproduction technology. The development of the internet was seen by major record labels as a distribution network that caused greater fears about digital technology and the digital reproduction of music than compact discs could ever create. Record industry leaders along with the film industry helped develop the DMCA to redefine copyright legislation in a new digital era.
Not long after the passage of the DMCA, the world’s first peer-2-peer network was created to share digital files online as Napster came into existence in 1999. The recording industry fought back at p-2-p networks because they feared that consumers would choose free digital files online over hard media bought at stores. It is at this junction that the RIAA began the latest plea that a new technology would kill the “music industry” by arguing in a sense that “if people are allowed to download music for free, music will cease to exist.” Now I may be overstating the major record labels’ perspective, but it is key to note that I am not saying only the illegal downloading of music will result in the death of music; this argument inherently bemoans the legal downloading of free music, too.


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