Of all the unexpected sights and sounds at the 44th Annual Grammy Awards telecast, the biggest surprise wasn’t Patti LaBelle’s caterwauling Christina Aguilera out of her diaper and fake tanner, O Brother’s über-sweep (lest we toot our own horn, Slant predicted the soundtrack’s Best Album win), or even the revelation that Pink’s parents are actually Frida Kahlo and Voltron. It was the always-irksome Recording Academy president/CEO Michael Greene’s condescending, wrist-slapping diatribe on “the most insidious virus in our midst”: digital piracy. Yes, the highest-paid head of a nonprofit organization (a self-awarded $2 million salary) lectured viewers on the ethics of using their computers to listen to music. It was just last summer that I recall haggling with a “street merchant” in Chinatown over the price of an Aaliyah CD, a promo copy of which was being toted at a lofty $17.95 at a local mom-and-pop store just up the street. In fact, this particular store is notorious for breaking street dates and pricing CDs well above their suggested retail values just to make a buck.
Greene claims file-sharing apologists offer a myriad of excuses, yet these excuses are admittedly valid ones: downloading doesn’t replace CD-buying, it’s simply a substitute for radio, a format that has become so formulaic you can practically predict the next song almost as easily as you can next week’s #1 TRL video; record companies have cannibalized the singles market, forcing fickle consumers with little in the way of discretionary dollars (most of whom are between the ages of 12 and 21) to purchase full-length albums at $18.98 a pop or, say, download a track or two. Most file-sharers do not download 6,000 MP3s in two days, the number Greene claimed his three-student army of super-human piracy soldiers “ripped”—Numair, Stephanie, and Ed sat in the celeb-stuffed audience seemingly in fear of the following day’s schoolyard repercussions. (Want some more of Greene’s fuzzy math? The RIAA estimates that 3.6 billion songs are illegally downloaded every month. That’s 43.2 billion a year or, assuming that the average album contains 12 songs, close to 4 billion albums illegally downloaded in one year. In 2001, the industry didn’t even sell one billion albums according to Soundscan. In essence, Greene is suggesting the industry has been denied a 400% profit increase in the last year.)
Yes, artists should be paid for their work, but the industry’s ongoing legal squabbles (and subsequent “control” over the black market) are anything but selfless. Developing artists, at least those not predestined for one-hit-wonderdom, can only benefit from such exposure in the long run. Superstar acts that make most of their money on the road, like Metallica (now crowned the most uncool band in the country), probably wouldn’t have even noticed the loss. But, of course, there’s the matter of principle; stealing is wrong no matter how you cut it. Yet you just can’t blame sluggish sales on the Internet.
About a year ago, I strolled into NYC’s downtown Tower Records (you know, the one whose spiritual death was recently lamented by David Browne in Entertainment Weekly?) and was horrified to discover the truth. Consumers aren’t fleeing to Best Buy and Napster because they’re not “passionate about music,” as Greene implied; it’s because they just don’t believe today’s music is worth $18.98. It’s a hefty investment for something they’ll likely discard after six months. Nirvana for $18.98, maybe. Britney, no. Yes, we’ve done the math; it takes many a producer, executive producer, session musician, engineer, mixer, art director, photographer, product manager, publicist, promoter, college rep, sales rep, and creative consultant to make Britney pop. But perhaps too many hands are in the pot. Could a reformation be in the works? Could Ani DiFranco have been right all this time?
Greene’s dramatic speech wasn’t only disturbing because of its sermonic tone, but for its indolent finger pointing. The alleged culprits are consumers who are communicating a very clear message to the industry: Your product is not worth its price. These are the people who determine the value of a firm’s product, not the other way around. So, Mr. Greene, while you may have put on a less-boring-than-usual stage show on February 27th, your presence has progressed from annually irritating to insulting. And oh yeah, big up to Dick Clark.