Brendan Polmer: Music without restrictions

Ah, sweet music. It’s the world’s universal language, capable of uniting us all and evoking every known emotion in the human soul. It allows one to form a personal bond with its essence, framing a moment in time to a specific, personalized soundtrack. My own personal soundtrack consists of nearly 10,000 songs and is still growing, although I’ve only paid for probably two thirds of it – so sue me. No, wait – please don’t!

Once again, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is suing college students, having slapped more 400 students at 13 colleges nationwide with “pre-litigation” letters. Great move guys, really. Seems to me like there’s no better public relations move than suing one of your largest consumer bases for trying to discover new music.

The RIAA doesn’t get it. Trying to explain to them that discovering new music through file-sharing on the Internet can be a good thing is like trying to explain hip-hop as an art form to your grandfather. While there has been an overall decrease in record sales over the past few years, the fact is that college students still buy music legally.

In a recent poll of college students by SurveyU, 98 percent of students said that they had some illegally downloaded music sitting on their computer. However, more than half (57 percent) of all digital music on college students’ computers was obtained legally, either from a legitimate download service like iTunes or a purchased CD.

The RIAA’s basic premise behind suing college students is that illegal downloads hurt the very artists they are trying to listen to. The more likely scenario, however, is that illegal downloads are resulting in less profit for the major labels – profit that most artists would never see in their bank accounts to begin with. In the poll by SurveyU, 60 percent of those surveyed felt that musicians don’t suffer from illegal downloads since their growing fan base buys concert tickets and makes other financial contributions to their success.

But there is hope that some of the major labels are starting to listen to the digital generation (those born around 1982 and beyond). Earlier this week, major music label EMI announced that it would no longer use DRM (digital-rights management) technology on its music sold digitally through online download sites like Apple’s iTunes music store. EMI – which owns the rights to artists like Radiohead, Gorillaz and Norah Jones (not to mention the entire Beatles collection) – appears to be doing something that other major music labels and the RIAA aren’t: trusting their customers.

Up to this point, music purchased through the iTunes music store with “digital rights management” technology had several restrictions. A downloaded track could only be played on the purchaser’s iPod, could only be authorized to play on a few computers, and could not be shared over the Internet. Although the new DRM-free tracks will be slightly more expensive than the 99-cent songs currently on iTunes, they will allow greater freedom for the purchaser to do as they please with their music.

While such a move by a major label may seem crazy to, say, the RIAA, it is likely to pay off in the long run. According to a post on the popular music blog, music consumers will probably be more likely to buy music from EMI’s artists, as well as view the major label as a legitimate, friendly music corporation, rather than an evil, litigious, money-hungry machine.

Hopefully, other major labels will begin to follow in EMI’s footsteps and put fewer restrictions on digital music. With more and more record stores closing around the country (Tower Records, to name one), college students are being forced to find new ways to discover new music. If they want us to listen to it legally, then it should be without strings attached.

So stop suing us, RIAA. It’s only making you look more and more like the ignorant, grumpy old man that you really are. Your scare tactics aren’t fooling anyone, and it’s not going to change the way we get our music.

-The writer, a junior majoring in journalism, is a Hatchet columnist.

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