The formats through which people listen to music have undergone significant and often swift change over the past twenty-five years, from vinyl to cassettes to CDs and now to digital players such as computers and portable MP3 players.
In the past, the music industry has been able to dominate format changes and dictate to the public what it can buy. It now faces the prospect of having to compete in a changing market where consumers have become accustomed to acquiring music in digital formats for free.
As access to the internet has grown, so has the amount of online resources available for users to download music.
Meanwhile, file sizes for near-perfect digital copies of music has shrunk with the advent of formats such as MP3. MP3 is a compressed format that will typically store files at less than 10% of their original size, while retaining most of the quality of the original audio.
Consumers were quick to realise, as the internet user base grew, that they could find music quickly and store it on their computers in near perfect quality. They could also transfer it to more traditional music formats, such as CDs and cassettes.
At first, the record industry appeared to largely ignore the threat imposed by this technology, which only helped to create a void that other non-commercial software providers were prepared to fill.
The online service Napster was a pioneer in this arena, creating a network of computers that could be searched via lists held on their sites. This so-called peer-to-peer network was the model for a number of similar sites and networks.
Although Napster claimed not to be breaking any copyright rules due to its holding listings of files and not the files itself, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) challenged this in the courts.
The RIAA eventually began a process whereby it has tried to clamp down on any services being offered in this way. Its tactics, although arguably heavy-handed, have been supported along the way by big-selling artists such as Eminem and Britney Spears.
Regardless of the effect on record companies, there is a large community of people willing to share the music files they have, whether from recording their own CDs onto their computers or by downloading from other online users.
This community has continued to grow, despite efforts by the industry to stop it from happening.
Not all music files made available on the internet breach copyright rules. Some bands will make additional tracks available for this medium, perhaps remixes or live versions of their songs. Other highly sought-after songs may be long out of print, very hard to find or not even released at all.
It is current hits and songs available on the internet before they are publicly released, however, that may anger record companies the most. While they are keen to maximise the sales potential of their recordings, they find that copies circulate around the internet well in advance of the release date.
Despite the RIAA’s intervention, the number of sites offering illegal music continues to grow. In January 2003 Cary Sherman, the president of the RIAA, finally admitted that online peer-to-peer sharing of music files is here to stay.
Rather than trying to eliminate the threat, the industry will have to accept that there will always be some illegal activity. The record companies will have to find a way to compete in the digital arena and offer something that consumers are willing to pay for.
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