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