Who's to blame? The downloading music fan or the Recording Industry Association of America? Manufacturing costs for music have been plunging in the digital age yet today, music fans are frequently accused of stealing music. Yet it's clear who controls the music - both its price and its production: the industry not the artist. So why are music fans being terrorised by the industry? Cassandra R. Hunt comments.


There is a dangerous group among us that finds our very way of life an affront to its sensibilities. This organization finds our most cherished pastime to be flagrantly liberal and a contradiction to its members’ beliefs concerning ethical behavior and, in their eyes, there is no middle ground. Because we are many and strong, they cannot attack us directly. They strike terror into our hearts by picking victims at random and using our own resources to thwart us.

I’m speaking, of course, of the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America).

Since the advent of 8-tracks and video cassettes, it has been the prerogative of America’s youth to capture media they enjoy. The need to possess something greater than one’s self, to somehow control an idea - an idea in the form of songs and movies and television shows - to use it as an expression of the self, realizes two basic human needs: the need to be understood and the need for self improvement.

If we understand this, other mind-boggling behaviors of our peers becomes clear. For example, what other motivation could inspire so many teens to post lists of their MP3s online? Why does every blog have that silly feature "What I’m listening to/watching now?"

From these two motivations springs the personal conundrum of anyone who considers illegally downloading media: how does the way I acquire this art impact what it means to own it? Or more generally, to steal or not to steal?

The RIAA says the implications of music theft are clear. The artist is robbed of the money that his art has earned him. In an economic system whose principle tenet is that those who produce something valued to society should receive the amount of money their product is worth, this is clearly unethical. For those who agree, this means that their possession of illegally downloaded music adds another dimension to what each song says about them - it says, "I’m willing to undermine the very foundation of the society that I rely on."

But most of us don’t feel our pirating is so severe. After all, the very technology that allows us to steal music is the same technology responsible for the balloon in the recording industry. The cost of producing each sound byte has dropped, yet prices have not reflected this. Today, CDs are sold for more than LPs ever were (adjusting for inflation), yet they are cheaper to produce.

This profit margin can’t change in a system where we must purchase 90 percent of our music from the RIAA. Without competitors, we’re forced to get our music at the prices it sets. And when the recording industry behaves like a trust, the question of ethics gets thrown back to the accuser. People have been recording music onto tapes for decades, but using a technology that allows higher profits comes with the cost of having a new scale of competition - free digital music sharing.

So how can we reach a fair equilibrium that doesn’t leave the recording industry giving its music away to compete? The RIAA’s answer is guerrilla warfare, forcing us to look over our shoulders at every turn on the information superhighway. What alternative is there that doesn’t rely on our own integrity to recognize a fair trade?

The RIAA has no faith in us, and I doubt we do either. But if we are to overcome our foe, we must relearn the ethics we hold dear. We must understand why it is we respect art and what it means to pay proper tribute to an artist. Then we can take pride in ourselves and our actions and show our enemy what it means to do right. Maybe we’ll even be understood.

Note: Cassandra R. Hunt is a member of the Class of 2008.
This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 48 volume 125. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

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