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Reacting to James Otto on the Subject of Music Piracy



Last week, country singer James Otto unleashed a series of tweets bemoaning music piracy. This morning, those tweets were featured on AOL’s country blog (The Boot) in a brief write-up by blogger Phyllis Stark, who cites Otto’s comments as a “specific example of how [piracy] affects artists and songwriters.”

Trouble is, Otto’s comments offer no specific example of how piracy affects anything at all—just an unsourced number alongside a heaping helping of moral righteousness.

I’ve known music piracy was rampant but check it out. This week I sold 7500 singles (which is pretty good) but 80,000 people stole it. No wonder so many of my friends in the business are losing their jobs. Kinda scary.

We’d love to check it out, but there’s no way to do so. Unless, that it, Otto and his label have some magic piece of software, hidden from the rest of the industry, that can track how many times a copyrighted work was copied illegally.

Later, in another tweet, he chides people for paying “$5 for a cup of coffee.”

Five bucks? Where you buyin’ your brew, bro?

What Otto states as fact (80,000 people stole his song) is actually an estimate, based on some mathematical model. It doesn’t matter which model, because the number the model reports is irrelevant. 80,000 or 800,000—the truth is that today, because of legal and illegal music delivery channels, there is so much choice, so much ease of access and so much inventory that the vast majority of artists cannot expect to sell tens of thousands of copies of a song in a week. A small handful of extremely relevant “now” artists are capable of pushing those numbers, but there is no way in hell Otto would have sold 87,500 copies of “Groovy Little Summer Song” last week. Otto is a B-list star with a minor radio hit and virtually no national exposure outside of country radio. What in the world would have propelled him to those kinds of sales figures?

Otto’s statement is misleading and disingenuous to his fans, but that’s not the point. The issue here is with the essence of his statement: illegal downloads are killing the music industry and costing people jobs.

It’s not true. And it’s time for artists and labels to stop trying to pin the downfall of the industry on music fans. The business has changed. It’s never going back. There is no end to piracy. No matter how many grandmas and college students are sued, no matter how many PSA ads are aired with the intention of convincing people to be ashamed of their behavior, and no matter how many indignant tweets artists pop out from their iPhones.

What’s killing the industry is its own inability to adapt and rebuild itself around a drastically altered landscape. Hell, Warner Bros.’ big idea for revamping the industry is to split albums up into 6 song EPs? That’s their answer? You’ve got to be kidding me.

Regular people download music illegally because they can, and because they don’t believe it’s wrong. They have no idea how the music industry works, and they don’t care. Even if they did, they would still be pirates.

From a consumer’s standpoint, how does it make sense to spend $15 on an album when everyone around you—your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers—is downloading it for free? These are real people, with real families, and they only have so much disposable income. They’d rather spend that money taking their family out to dinner, or taking their loved one to a movie, or buying bait to go fishing.

And so we come to the crux of Mr. Otto’s problem: consumers don’t want to own his music strongly enough to shell out that $15 for it. They don’t feel compelled to go buy James Otto’s CD. And, as for song downloads, if they were going to spend .99 cents to download a song, they sure wouldn’t spend it on his. They’ll download it for free and not feel even the least bit bad about doing so.

Why don’t they feel bad about breaking international copyright law? Because they weren’t going to buy Otto’s record or song anyway. Sure, they like it OK. They heard it on the radio a few times and it’s nice to chill to while they’re going for a walk down to the Kroger, but if they couldn’t get it for free they wouldn’t care about it. No piracy? Those 7500 singles Otto sold would turn into, what? 10,000? 15,000? Not 80,000. No way.

It’s not because they don’t like Otto or his music. Consumers just have better things to spend their limited resources on, especially in this economy. After all, they can’t buy all of their music—so why would they buy his? How many songs are on an iPod? Thousands? People can’t spend thousands of dollars building their music collection. They don’t have that much money to spend on music.

And so, the industry’s answer to all of this is to basically tell people to “consume within their means.” The industry wants people to only possess the music they can afford to purchase. And you can’t blame ‘em. That’s how it’s worked for years and years.

But that’s over. We’re not talking about a few rouge pirates who just need to be flushed out of the system. We’re talking about a global, cultural shift in the way we as a society view our relationship to music. We will never again be satisfied owning a little shelf full of CDs, or a little digital folder full of files. We’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to be able to hear what we want, when we want, where we want. And we’re never going back.

If that upsets you, fine. If you think it’s wrong that people don’t care about the songwriters, the publishers and the label folks who put in more hard work than they get paid for, well, that’s fine too. But stop whining about it. And stop trying to play the victim. Copyright law is a stale argument. Society doesn’t think downloading music is wrong. Good luck playing the legality card. There are millions upon millions of people who think you’re crazy, and greedy for doing so.

Think people won’t buy music? They sure do buy Carrie’s music. And they buy Miranda’s music, even though she toiled for years with almost no radio support. She still sold platinum. She was giving people something to buy into. People care about Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift—not just as producers of music, but as people. And for very different reasons among the three artists. The one consistent thing among them, however, is that they give fans something to be a part of. An image. A movement. A concept. They encourage a shared social experience. And people will pay to be a part of that.

There’s Underwood, who built a loyal following on American Idol. Her fans feel invested in her career. Lambert is the relatable rebel, the bad girl with a sweet side who critics and mainstream fans adore equally. And then there’s Swift, who is almost as much a friend to her fans as she is an icon to them.

What’s James Otto’s image? What movement is he inspiring people to be a part of? How does James Otto help people better understand themselves and where they fit in society?

Hey, you don’t have to do those things. you can be the kind of artist who just cranks out consistently pleasant music. That’s the great thing about this new industry democracy that the internet has unearthed—you can be that guy and still make a living with your music. Twenty years ago? That’s a much tougher task.

But if you want to sell 80,000 singles per week, those are questions you need to ask and issues you need to deal with. And, from a label standpoint, those are the things you need to consider when mapping out your business plan.

See, perhaps the biggest flaw with major label thinking these days is the belief that the label can turn an artist like James Otto into a superstar. They’ve spent way too much money on this guy’s career. He has talent, God yes. He has a place, and his music has an audience. But he’s not a top-tier guy. For whatever reason (and you could debate reasons ’till the sun goes down), he’s just not.

Instead of accepting that fact and working to build a strong, sustainable career that fits what he’s capable of, the label funnels him through the same tube as everyone else and tries to market him in essentially the same way as everyone else.

The little tweaks in the marketing plan don’t matter. The point is that they still think they can do business the same way they used to. Sign an artist. Break that artist. Market that artist. People will buy.

People won’t buy.

So, we come back to piracy. Here’s the way too simple solution—give people music in the cloud. Give them a service that they can buy into, for a fee, that allows them to hear what they want, whenever they want, and via the device of their choosing.

Rhapsody-to-Go was a great idea: $12.99 per month and you get to take whatever music you want with you. Who cares if you actually own the files. The problem? It doesn’t work with iPods. D’oh! Fail.

No iPods? If your streaming music service doesn’t work with iPods, just forget about it. Save yourself millions of dollars and lots of headaches. No one is going to use the Sansa. No one is going to use to Slot Radio player. Do you want to be the uncool kid who doesn’t have the iPod? Microsoft can’t even sell the Zune.

On top of that, if you want to sell music, you need to price it so that the product (whether a streaming service or something else) has more value than free downloads.

Free downloads aren’t free, you know. If you want to download off of BitTorrent, you’ve got to spend time finding valid torrents that don’t have fake files, and then you’ve got to hope there’s a seeder. If you’re on Limewire, you better watch out for viruses and low-quality downloads with skips and scratches.

It takes time, energy and patience to illegally download music.

Don’t you think people would pay $X.99 per month to avoid that? Time is money. Bring all the music together in one marketplace and let people go crazy. They’ll pay for that, if you package it in a way that really works. If, that is, you package it in a way that meets their needs rather than the industry’s.

Until we get there, though, Otto’s right about one thing: It’s a tough go for people in this industry. It’s hard to make a living right now. But we would all do better if more people would get down from their high horses and genuinely look for solutions, rather than just complain about how messed up everything is. People who pirate music aren’t criminals—legally, yes, but not by society’s standards. As an industry, we need to accept that, and find news ways to monetize our creative works.

Jim Malec is a journalist whose work has appeared in American Songwriter, Country Weekly, Denver Westword, Slant and others. He is the founder of American Noise and former Managing Editor of The 9513.

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