So the numbers are in, and for the fourth year in a row the music industry has hit new records for digital downloads for singles and albums.
Yes, download sales are still not compensating for the decline in album sales. And yes, the profit margins for digital singles remain a major problem. And even further, piracy is still outstripping all other forms of digital activity. But I think the industry can take a quick moment to enjoy this new threshold as it gears itself up for another tough year ahead. The positive take from this is that digital formats are becoming a more entrenched part of the marketplace.
Downloads account for about 80% of all digital music revenues (not including ringtones and the like) according to the Yankee Group, so seeing the sector continue to grow is good news. Hopefully, it provides momentum to do more. Like new digital products that tie in with downloads, more content added to each download (lyrics, hello!), more interoperability between services.
I can't fault the labels for patting themselves on the back with their press releases touting how this artist broke that digital record, or who holds the greatest market share. That's part of the celebration of good news. But I'm looking for the press releases that announce what exactly they plan to do with this momentum; how they plan to keep it going and grow it further. The digital growth to date has mostly been from new music fans entering the space. If the industry wants to celebrate similar growth rates this time next year, it's going to do a whole lot more.
Considering all the lawsuits it has fired off in recent history, the RIAA pulled off an unlikely move this week with a lot of help from the Washington Post. It emerged as a victim.
The Post did itself a major disservice by printing a column skewering the RIAA for claiming that copying music from a CD to a hard drive is illegal. The problem? The RIAA never said that.
In a legal brief filed in an Arizona court case against an accused file-sharing user, the RIAA asserts that the defendant copied music files from CDS and put them in a shared music folder made available to other P2P users. A host of blogs and other news outlets misread the distinction and derided the RIAA for trying to encroach on what is otherwise considered fair use. Many made corrections. The Washington Post didn't, and has been taking a bit of flack of its own as a result.
I'm not sure whether the backlash against the Post is in the spirit of fair journalism, or just a part of the blogger's ongoing crusade to lampoon mainstream media outlets. But I think the larger issue here is how news organizations are quick to fault the RIAA, and the music industry in general, without at least first checking on what is really being proposed. It's gotten to a mob-mentality stage where facts no longer seem to matter -- the torches are lit and the crowd wants somebody hung.
But I have to say, the RIAA brought this on themselves. It's time to heel the lawyers and save them for the big cases against the sources of music piracy, not those who use them. It's time to hand the reins over to the marketing and PR folks and start a reconciliation campaign with the music fans of the world. The litigation campaign has, at best, contributed to, and at worst, is the direct cause of the animosity directed at the RIAA as an organization, and the music industry it represents. By creating an "us vs. them" mentality, the lawsuits have produced generations of music fans actively cheering on the music industry's destruction. I'm not sure how that helps.