Third time's the charm. Napster came out in 1999, and the Recording Industry Association of America had two great revenue statements for that year and the next. But now that CD sales finally are down year-to-year, at long last they get the chance to blame Napster for their woes. There's just one thing wrong...
...they don't have Napster to kick around anymore.
For yesterday's press release, the RIAA commissioned a survey by a research firm to prove that music-downloading is to blame, but all they tell us about it is that "23 percent of surveyed music consumers say they are not buying more music because they are downloading or copying their music for free." No more details provided, no link to the survey's raw numbers. So what does this mean? I guess 77 percent are buying more music because they're downloading it for free?
To put the new sales figures in perspective, a look at the big picture will be helpful. Free music-trading software had been in serious trouble since mid-2000. Despite indications that music-trading was helping sell CDs, the labels forced Napster to implement a name-blocking scheme. We ran a story in March 2001 pointing out that its traffic had fallen by 60%.
Then SF Gate ran a nice story last August, pointing out that declining RIAA sales seemed to mirror Napster downloads:
"At this point last year, with Napster in full swing, record sales were up 8 percent from the previous year. This year, sales of new albums -- not including established catalog titles -- are down 8 percent. That's quite a pendulum swing."
Sure, other file-trading software has taken Napster's place, but at this point it's fun just to watch the industry limp around after shooting itself in the foot.
Not that it's really hurting money-wise. All this week's numbers mean is that the RIAA's total revenue has declined almost to 1998 levels. In 1998 they made $13.71 billion; after peaking in the mid-$14-billions, last year they made $13.74 billion.
This probably is due party to the crummy economy, partly to their failure to find any new sound to co-opt and mainstream recently, and partly to lack of big artists releasing megahits like they did in 1999. You know music officially sucks when the labels have to pay someone $28million not to sing.
Oh, and partly due to the RIAA raising CD prices by $1.16, which is $0.25 over and above inflation (which has been higher than wage growth lately anyway). CDs are 94% of their revenue. Most industries, faced with declining sales, try lowering their prices. Not this one.
I've got two pieces of advice for the RIAA.
The first is to stop pissing off your own artists so much that they blow off the Grammys and throw their own party just to stick it to you. The musicians and singers are the ones making you rich. I know you think they're all interchangeable, but if you alienate them enough, when a new technology gives them an edge, they'll drop you like yesterday's sound.
The second is to reread Robert Heinlein's very first story Life-Line:
"There has grown up in the minds of certain groups in this country the notion that because a man or corporation has made a profit out of the public for a number of years, the government and the courts are charged with the duty of guaranteeing such profit in the future, even in the face of changing circumstances and contrary to public interest. This strange doctrine is not supported by statute or common law. Neither individuals nor corporations have any right to come into court and ask that the clock of history be stopped, or turned back."