Outsdie View: Wrong Language, Wrong Lesson

By MERRIE SPAETH  |  Aug. 5, 2003 at 4:59 PM
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DALLAS, Aug. 5 (UPI) -- The music industry is bent on self-destruction. The Recording Industry Association of America announced it plans to track down and sue individuals swapping music files over the Internet without paying copyright fees. The RIAA is trying to use legal tactics to combat a change in the industry's basic business model -- a change which they saw coming and arrogantly ignored. This sea of change was enabled not only by technology, but by a similar seismic change in values -- a change the RIAA also had a hand in creating.

First to the communication issues: the RIAA is using ads and celebrities to argue that stealing music is wrong. That is correct. But they are also arguing that all the music that is downloaded would have been purchased. That is not true.

Forrester Research published a widely touted study saying illegal downloading cost the industry $10 billion, but the entire industry only generated $14 billion in 1999. Basic economics teaches demand goes up when goods are free. The RIAA's "facts" are self-serving and untrue, damaging the credibility of the rest of their message.

Second, the RIAA put the message out on the wrong communication channel. They are using the tried and true techniques of ads and media interviews. But their target audience -- young people and 20s types -- are communicating via person-to-person networks. That is why the sneaker companies have young kids out on street corners and in parking lots talking up their product. That is why the software industry is conducting its "worker bee" campaign, saying to company employees that they can and should rat on their employers who have unlicensed software.

If the RIAA wants to truly reach the users, it has to use innovative techniques, and it has to send its own armies out to meet its customers and talk to them face to face. And it is not willing to do that.

The message, "we're coming after you," is also flawed in two crucial areas. First, the chances of being caught are slim to infinitesimal. Next, if you are caught and cave immediately, the chance is that they will let you off. The RIAA did sue and settle with four university students for amounts in the $10,000 range. That is pizza money to many of today's college kids. The users are smart enough to understand both the odds and the proper response.

Some users probably are scared straight, but the issue begs asking, should the industry suggest that it cares so little about its customers that it's willing to bully them?

The problem originated with Napster -- not with Napster's technology, but what it revealed. A message from Net Prophet Sean Dugan in April 2000, said "Napster sends a message to music industry: Your customers aren't happy."

Rather than deal with customer satisfaction issues, the industry chose to say, "We don't care," but in language closer to what rappers would use. Rather than deal with the fact that customer behavior had changed and technology had empowered them, the industry took out its wrath on Napster. If ever there is an example of winning a battle but losing the war, it's the industry's successful battle to kill Napster. Their legal and PR advisors should be fired. What would happen was all too clear.

The industry says that over the last six months, they have made enormous files easy and inexpensive to access, and they have. So why aren't customers converting en masse?

Mike Negra, owner of Mike's Music Stores in State College, PA, has the answer. He wrote an open letter in June explaining that today's college students have a " feeling of entitlement."

Gee. I wonder how that happened? Doesn't it occur to the industry that this is part and parcel of a value system which puts the individual at the center of the universe? Which says 'whatever I want to do, I can?' Which ridicules authority and the Rule of Law?

But what's that? The last college survey showed that civics as a class had virtually disappeared, and that a majority of students couldn't name all three branches of government.

Overwhelmingly, music artists support liberal politicians who argue on behalf of entitlement policies and who deride business and the profit motive. Too many Americans think 'profit' is a bad thing. The pharmaceutical industry is struggling with this, too, but they haven't responded by saying they will poison their customers.

My prediction: the RIAA has to wait for a generation to mature, but who knows what advances technology will bring about? Or, they can take a hard look at the values they themselves have had so great a hand in creating.

-- Merrie Spaeth, Director of Media Relations for President Reagan, is President of a Dallas-based consulting firm and is a regular commentator on public radio and television.

-- Outside View articles are written for UPI by outside writers on subjects of public interest.

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