Thursday, March 08, 2007

The RIAA and the low-price spread

I find an interesting parallel between the struggles of the RIAA to completely lock down sound recordings digitally, and the history of margarine.

Margarine was developed as a substitute for butter back in the 1870's, and proved so popular that the dairy industry began a protracted struggle to deny people what they wanted and force them to return to purchasing only butter.

Laws were passed practically banning its use. Since margarine isn't naturally yellow, the industry pushed laws through that required the consumer add the coloring in an attempt to make it less appealing. Special taxes were created to keep the price of margarine artificially high, and help make butter more competitive.

But all the laws and taxes and restrictions couldn't change the fact that consumers liked margarine -- sometimes because of avalablity during dairy shortages, sometimes because of price.

Now in a free market system, when a competing product comes out, one can either
a) adapt it to your own uses, or
b) come out with something better.

The dairy industry chose
c) use your money and influence to kill off the competition.

It didn't work. The consumer had already chosen, and margarine wasn't going away.

In time, the industry went with (a). Despite all the lobbying, all the laws and all the taxes and restrictions, the public never returned to buying only butter. They had developed new eating habits and new buying habits, and it wasn't until the industry recognized that fact and started providing customers with what they wanted that it stopped leaving money on the table and began to enjoy the benefits of this new market.

And that's the lesson for the recording industry. People use music differently now, and their buying patterns have changed. The model of selling a physical product (be it CD, cassette, 8-track tape, LP or 78rpm record) is fading. The major labels, through the RIAA, are spending an obscene amount of money lobbying Congress, launching lawsuits and trying every way imaginable to put the genie back in the bottle -- while crying about declining revenue.

It may be painful, but it's past time to change. No one's going to abandon the convenience of digital music once they've tried it. Listening habits have changed; buying habits have changed. I think the music industry could be revitalized virtually overnight if only they embraced the lessons of margarine.

- Ralph

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