NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Is Downloading the New Prohibition?

G-Man to Run Anti-Piracy Task Force

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

So it’s come down to this: downloading music is the new Prohibition and the record industry is hiring the modern-day equivalent of Eliot Ness to come in with machine guns blazing to wipe out the evil gangsters. (Historical aside for history-deficient victims of the American school system: “Prohibition” refers to the era in American history from 1920-1933 when alcohol was prohibited. It led to a huge increase in organized crime, widespread disrespect for the law and enormous consumption of illegal alcohol. Eliot Ness was the federal agent most celebrated for hunting down the most notorious criminals who were bootlegging alcohol.)

What I’m referring to is the Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) hiring this week of their new G-Man. Their new sheriff is the just-retired director of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Bradley A. Buckles (whose nickname should be “Belt”) is the new RIAA enforcer. The RIAA press release fairly drips with machismo and braggadocio, noting how Buckles’ hiring as head of its Anti-Piracy Unit “should signal to everyone that we continue to take piracy, here and throughout the world, very seriously.” Well, yes, piracy should indeed be taken seriously, but you have to wonder if this is the best solution.

A spokesman for Downhill Battle, a defense fund for music downloaders being sued by the RIAA, was quoted in the New York Post as saying, “If they have the same success stopping downloading as the ATF had stopping illegal gun sales, I don’t think downloaders have anything to worry about.”

I want to state clearly and unequivocally that I am against music piracy, against illegal downloading and against any and all forms of theft of music. That said, the RIAA and the record industry do not have a history of inspiring confidence with their heavy-handed, ham-fisted approach to the problem of recording piracy. Thus far, suing its own customers has been the record industry’s major thrust in trying to terrorize and intimidate downloaders. That punitive campaign almost takes on an added cartoon-like exaggeration with this pompously worded announcement of a new tough guy taking on the crusade. What’s next: jackbooted agents kicking down your door in the middle of the night and seizing your hard drive?

Unlike with Prohibition, all the record industry had to do when all this mess started was to offer a legal, attractive and affordable downloading system. The fact that it for years never even considered doing so (and still has made no major progress at doing so) is emblematic of the mindset of an industry that for generations has made fortunes off the backs of its creative peons. This is an industry that thought radio would drive it out of business because consumers could hear music on the radio instead of buying recorded music or sheet music. This is an industry that feared that cassette recorders were evil instruments because they could duplicate record albums, and thus the industry forged a crusade out of imposing punitive taxes on the sales of blank tape. It now forgets that it ignored the downloading problem for years and thus allowed consumers to be lulled into thinking that downloading is a right, not a crime. Breaking that mindset can’t be suddenly accomplished with wholesale lawsuits and a hint of handcuffs and billyclubs.

If the music industry had asked me about this downloading matter (which it has not), I would have advised that — instead of hiring a big, tough enforcer — there is a saner approach available. I would have gone after the original fox to guard this hen house. I would have hired the guy who developed Napster, which unleashed this whole downloading monster on the world in the first place. Who better to know how to cage or at least pacify the monster? Shawn Fanning was 18 and a college student when he came up with the brilliant concept of Napster. He outwitted the whole recording industry from his dorm room. No reason he can’t offer a comprehensive solution in reverse. Who better to thwart or convert hackers than the original hacker? I hear that Fanning has been working on a new technology that uses audio fingerprinting to create a foolproof system of blocking illegal downloading. I have not heard that the RIAA has approached him about that. I do hear that the major record labels are still not talking with each other about a shared download system — they will likely never trust each other enough to do so.

Suing your customers, as the RIAA is now fond of doing, is not cool. Threatening them is even less cool. Illegal downloading will never be eradicated — the plain and simple fact is that the Internet cannot be wrapped in concertina wire (like towns in Iraq) or completely sanitized or policed. What the music industry can do is to make legal downloading the avenue of preference. And make it worthwhile and desirable. There is a good reason why Apple’s iPod and iTunes download combination is working. Offer music listeners a carrot instead of a stick. Don’t just wave a new big stick threateningly at your customers and expect them to be grateful and obedient and fall into line.