This magical Internet machine has been up and running for a while now, transmitting music from the ether to our ears using a mix of faerie dust and marketing panache. It seems, however, that there is still a decisive split on what this new mystery machine means for the future of music.
You'd think that by now the music industry would have figured it out once and for all -- after all, they've sued the pants off a nice cross-section of humanity, Napster has been destroyed and rebuilt, and Pirate Bay has been fired upon by a number of different outlets.
In this week's Rolling Stone, U2 manager Paul McGuinness weighs in with his opinion on downloading, the timing of which just happens to coincide nicely with the release of a free preview and ludicrously low-priced new soundtrack from noted contrarian Trent Reznor.
Let's take a look at the two opposing views, starting with Reznor's: Over the weekend, the Nine Inch Nails mastermind gave away five tracks from his soundtrack to The Social Network and revealed that the subsequent album will be released exclusively on Amazon for the introductory price of, ahem, $2.99. Arcade Fire employed a similar discount technique for its new record and saw amazing results.
This isn't the first time Reznor has upset the apple cart. In 2008, he released Ghosts I-IV on torrent sites with a creative commons license, and followed that up -- while taking Radiohead to task over the quality of its free version of In Rainbows -- with The Slip, also released with the same license (which is why you'll hear tracks from both on NPR all the time).
Reznor's views on the industry seem to be more about catering to the fans -- letting people remix and reuse the tracks as they see fit, as long as they're not making money off it -- and getting music into their hands quickly, easily and in whatever format they prefer. It's a little romantic, sure, but ultimately, it's clear that this approach is about the music and less about the people behind it.
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And then there's McGuinness, whose lengthy Rolling Stone piece (a similar version was published in GQ UK last month) cites studies alleging that "95 percent of all the music downloaded is illegally obtained" and that "Europe's creative industries could lose more than a million jobs in the next five years."
Unlike the RIAA, which has its sights set on fans, McGuinness is dead set on blaming Internet service providers, even going so far as to assert that there should be a government mandate requiring ISPs to share their profits. Pushing the blame on ISPs effectively requires them to monitor Internet access of their subscribers in order to detect illegal activity and then to punish them accordingly. This approach certainly falls in line with the ongoing arguments in Congress regarding net neutrality -- or rather, in line with some of those opposed to net neutrality.
The other solution, one that's he's optimistic about but not counting on, is subscription-based services. Of course, we've seen many come and go, so at this point, we understand the reluctance to embrace such a model. Like McGuinness, we're waiting to see what Apple has up its sleeve after purchasing our favorite cloud-storage site, Lala. Just the same, subscription-based services seem closer and more relevant to what consumers want. At the same time, as McGuinness points out, artists aren't being awarded as much as they'd like off these deals.
A simpler and more effective solution for everyone involved: The music industry could just focus their attention on releasing albums that people are actually willing to pay money for -- or not. Whatever.