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Online content never was free

by Joel Donofrio
| November 26, 2010 8:00 PM

So, after years of going without them (or finding other ways to do it), fans now can legally own digital copies of their favorite Beatles songs through iTunes.

What a great day for music lovers, right?

Well ... to rate Tuesday's announcement in terms of Beatles tunes, think "Wild Honey Pie" rather than "Here Comes the Sun."

Make no mistake, the ability to download Beatles songs from iTunes - at a cost of $1.29 per song, $12.99 per single album, or $19.99 per double album - will generate some business for already-wealthy folks such as Steve Jobs, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the families of John Lennon and George Harrison.

Bully for them.

Meanwhile, the bigger - and thus far, unsolvable - problem remains for the music business and many others: How do you make people pay for something that takes a lot of time, money and effort to produce?

An interesting take on this appeared in a recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine (the one with Roger Waters on the cover).

U2's longtime manager, Paul McGuinness, argued that the concept of "free" is a threat that could destroy the world of pop, rock, rap, country and other forms of music we know and love.

I know, I know ... the hypocrisy meter goes into the red zone when we hear a manager of multi-millionaire rock stars, or the stars themselves, whine about fans paying their fair share. And McGuinness freely admits that long-established acts like U2 and the Beatles will do just fine regardless of what happens to fledgling record labels or new bands.

But his overall point - that many people feel entitled to "free" online entertainment and information - strikes close to home not just for young musicians, but for all of us who produce this "product" you now hold in your hands.

"The idea that free content is an inexorable fact of life brought on by the unstoppable advance of technology is a myth," McGuinness writes in his column. "It is in fact part of the commercial agenda of powerful telecom industries."

Think about that for a minute ... and think about other entertainment that seems "free."

* Over-the-air TV? There's a reason so many ads are shown during NFL games

* Radio? Try to find a station that's not playing ads at exactly 10 minutes before the top of each hour.

* Bar bands playing where there's no cover charge? C'mon in ... and have a drink or three.

You pay for the "free" Internet content, too - in the form of monthly bills from Internet Service Providers, cellular phone companies or however else you connect to the 'net.

There also have been plenty of ways to "pirate" popular music over the years. You could:

* Hold one of those old-fashioned tape recorders up to your radio (ah, the memories).

* Copy records, tapes or CDs to a blank Memorex tape (remember mix tapes, anyone)?

* Sneak some sort of recording device into a concert (or just buy the bootlegs).

But the one thing all of these pirating techniques had in common was lousy sound quality. If you wanted music that sounded good, you ponied up the cash for the LP, cassette, CD or concert ticket.

Then about 15 years ago, Internet sites such as Napster popped up, allowing early passengers on the information superhighway to avoid overpriced CDs and download new music onto their computer. CD burners started to sell like hotcakes, and it wasn't long before a wide array of hi-tech gizmos were available to play these mp3 files.

Fast forward to 2010, where 95 percent of all music downloaded is illegally obtained and unpaid for, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

The end result? Plenty of the worker bees lose their jobs; as McGuinness notes, unions representing Europe's creative industries estimate more than 1 million jobs will be eliminated in the next five years.

Identifying the problems caused by "free contest" is much easier than finding solutions, although McGuinness and others in the music business have a few ideas:

* Force ISPs to share the wealth, since some would argue they've profited tremendously over the years from music piracy. This probably would require government intervention, though. You recall how well that worked with Napster.

* Subscription services. Just like those old "snail mail" music clubs, pay a flat monthly fee and get as much music as you want (without having to mail CDs or tapes back!)

* Online advertising. As Rolling Stone notes, Universal and Sony already have joined forces to launch the Vevo service, which charges major advertisers between $20 and $45 for every 1,000 page views to put their ad "on the air" before the YouTube video plays.

My personal recommendation, as Black Friday is upon us, would be to take advantage of a non-digital shopping experience while you still can. Go ahead ... "give the gift of music" in its physical format.

Take a middle- or high-schooler to the local record shop - and thank goodness Coeur d'Alene still has a great one, The Long Ear on Fourth Street - and let them browse for their favorite musical acts the old-fashioned way.

That's how most people reading this column first fell in love with popular music, and hopefully it can work for the next generation.

Joel Donofrio is a copy editor for The Coeur d'Alene Press who simply wants to have a dead-tree edition of the newspaper to read when he's 64. E-mail him at jdonofrio@cdapress.com.

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