My Experience with the Music Industry

Local H LogoYesterday I did something that I literally had not done in years, I bought a CD.

This isn’t to say that I haven’t bought music over the past few years, but all of those purchases have been online, either through the iTunes store or by purchasing MP3s straight from the band’s site. However, even then my purchases have been relatively few and far between.

However, yesterday was a special day for my wife and I. Local H came out with their first album in several years, entitled “Twelve Angry Months” and we were very eager to get our hands on it.

Furthermore, we wanted to buy the physical CD. Not only did we want the case and the liner notes, but we wanted it DRM free. While DRM music is fine if you are just going to listen to the tracks a few times, if something is going to be a part of your life, as the other albums have been, we want something that travels better.

So, after my wife got home at the end of the day, we headed out to grab a copy. What followed taught us a great deal about the struggles of the music industry and why I don’t buy that much music anymore.

Background

Admittedly, Local H is not a nationally-recognized name. From Zion, Illinois, they are much better known in the Chicago area than other parts of the country, including here in New Orleans.

That being said the have been around for well over a decade and have had several “hit” songs. Many people know their music without realizing that they were behind it.

The “As Good As Dead” album is typically very easy to find in store while others are usually dicier. Still, with a new release we figured that there would be no issue in tracking down a copy.

We were very wrong.

Getting the Album

Google Maps of the DriveBefore we got into the car, we did some research and tried to locate an actual music store in the area. Not having been on such a run in several years, we had little idea where to begin, especially since Hurricane Katrina.

We jumped on the Internet and got names of stores and called them only to find that every single one was closed. It was disappointing, but we moved on to considering alternatives.

It was then that we remembered that Best Buy carried the band and decided to bite the bullet and head there to pick it up. This was in spite of the fact that Best Buy was not exactly along the beaten path for us to start with and is hardly our favorite place to go for anything.

However, after arriving and searching for the CD unsuccessfully, a very nice floor rep told us that they had sold out of the disk. At first we were happy that the CD was selling so well but then found out that they had only received a small number of CDs on the release date to “test how it sold” and that they “might get a larger order in next week.”

The rep then checked other stores in the area and found a copy of the disk at the Harahan store, which was across the river and across town from where we were. It would have taken at least 20 minutes to get there, probably more considering traffic was still bad.

Worried that we would drive over there to find the copy gone, we decided to chance it with stores closer to us.

We next hit a Circuit City and a Target, neither of which carried any of the band’s CDs. We debated stopping by Wal-Mart but broke into a debate about whether or not any copy we bought there would be censored. Though the CD hadn’t earned an “advisory” sticker, Local H is not exactly known as family-friendly either.

We passed on Wal-Mart on principle but did a quick check on our phones of Walmart.com, we found that they carried only two albums and both were “online only”.

During all of this driving, Crystal, using her phone, located an open CD shop on Bourbon St. She called only to find that they didn’t have the album in stock, however, they could easily order it and have it to us on Thursday.

We promised to call them back.

Frustrated and ready to give up, we decided to make the drive to Harahan. There, we finally found a copy of the CD buried in the actual Local H section, not in the new releases, and walked out with it.

We were fifteen dollars poorer and had spent over two hours trying to find it, but at least we had it and we had a long drive home with which we could listen to it.

A Better Understanding

The reason I am frustrated is because I did exactly what the music industry says it wants me to do. I didn’t fire up Bittorrent and download the CD illegally, I didn’t stream it off of Internet radio and I even avoided going the cheap route and downloading it off of iTunes. No, I paid full price for a brand new CD from a major retailer.

To thank me for my loyalty, the music industry made it almost impossible to buy their product. The problem isn’t Local H nor even their label, but a music sales system that virtually crushes any hope of variety.

At every store we visited, my wife and I could have easily snatched up a dozen copies of either the latest Madonna or Jordin Sparks album. While I am sure that these are great albums, they were languishing on the shelves while the product we wanted was nowhere to be seen.

If you’re not a fan of whatever the record labels are promoting that week, you’re forced into doing one of three things.

  1. Download the music illegally and not support the artist while risking being hauled into court.

  2. You can download a DRM-crippled copy of the album from any major online retailer and pray that the DRM doesn’t stop working.

  3. Spend hours of your life driving all over town in hopes of finding a copy and spending extra money for it.

The first option cheats the band and the second two cheat the customers. Though it doesn’t make it right, when you’re spending nearly 30 minutes in traffic heading to a store across town that might, just might, have a single copy of the CD you want, you begin to understand the temptation of Bittorrent.

In the time it took me to obtain a legitimate copy, I could have pirated the CD, listened to it twice and have written a short review. It would have been both legally and ethically wrong, but I would have had a lot more time in my evening for other things.

Why I Talk About This

The reason I talk about this is simple. The average reader of this site is a small copyright holder. We are bloggers, photographers, artists and musicians. We use the Web to distribute our works freely, or at least make them freely accessible.

Still, we have real copyright issues that need to be addressed. We have spammers that scrape our feeds and use our content to game the search engines. We have plagiarists using our works to pad their portfolios. We have eBayers that sell illegal prints from our freely-available photographs.

Every day small artists are ripped off in significant ways both on and offline and they turn to copyright law to protect them. However, there is a backlash against copyright law, in no small part due to the actions of the movie and music industries.

There are many good people who are calling for the abolition of copyright law not because they feel artists don’t deserve to be rewarded for their work, but because the current system feels broken and, in some cases, is being used to force customers into a business model that is inefficient and ineffective.

Even those who aren’t calling for the outright abolition of copyright law view it with a very wary eye. To many, the “C” inside of the circle might as well stand for any one of a number of four-letter words.

This makes it very difficult for those of us with with copyright issues that go beyond mere copying to protect our works. Hosts are unresponsive, readers are slow to assist and artists are scared to act when all they are trying to do is stop people from unfairly exploiting their work.

This is the climate that we operate in and the music industry is a large part of why it is so hostile against many of us.

Copyright is a tool and, like any tool, its inherent good or evil lies in its application. Sadly, the best known one use currently is as a stick to beat customers into following a business model that simply does not work.

Though many of the calls for the end of copyright are clear cases of throwing the baby out with the bath water, the receptiveness of the audience grows in lock step with the increase in frustration.

That should give all artists a reason to pause and think about how the RIAA and other major copyright holders could be destroying not just existing models, but future ones as well.

Conclusions

As artists who are interested in copyright, we have to keep our eye on the larger picture. Though it is easy to dismiss my afternoon yesterday is a strange person seeking out a CD from a relatively unknown band, the fact is that most music buyers have no interest in purchasing the new Madonna CD, or any other individual CD for that matter.

Everyone has their own taste in music and many people will have far more obscure preferences than me and my wife. This means that, every week when new releases come out, hundreds of thousands of people are forced into similar predicaments.

This isn’t about just one bad incident trying to find a CD any more than piracy is just about getting free music. This is about a much larger problem and how the music industry’s response to it is hurting all copyright holders.

Hopefully a solution will be found before the damage becomes irreversible.

localh-album-cover.jpgPersonal Note: Just to clarify, I am not trying to say anything bad about Local H or the album. In fact, quite the opposite is true. The album is great and well worth both the money and time. I am very glad that I have a physical, DRM-free copy of the CD as I plan to enjoy it for many years to come, as I have with the other albums.

If you are curious about the band you can check out their site or listen to samples of the album on their Myspace page. Specifically, listen to “24 Hour Break Up Session” and “Machine Shed Wrestling” as they are the previews off the new record. Also, if you don’t mind the DRM, you can buy it off of iTunes as well.

The problem is much larger with Local H and is with the music industry as a whole. However, as Local H proves, there is still some good music to be found, no matter how broken the system is.

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