Play it again

Music: Internet file-sharing and song-buying could be the latest in a century of technological advances opposed, then embraced, by those anxious to protect profits.

October 12, 2003|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The music industry moguls howling about the onslaught of free downloads of songs via Internet file-sharing programs might do well to remember the stance of John Philip Sousa.

The renowned composer of military marches was the leader of a highly popular band as the 19th century turned into the 20th. Then along came this newfangled thing invented by Thomas Edison called recording.

"This was the first time that the sounds of music were stored at will," says Emily Thompson, a visiting scholar in the program for science, technology and society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "This was revolutionary."

Sousa was against it. For one, he argued it distorted the music he produced. "He saw it as canned music, as a mechanical product," Thompson says.

But mainly Sousa feared for his financial future. Why would anybody bother to come to concerts, which is where he made his money, if they could just sit home and listen to his music?

That is, of course a version of the same argument the recording industry is making today -- why will anyone pay for their products when they can get them free over the Internet? The result is that the industry is filing lawsuits against schoolkids and grandmas -- and scores of college students -- it accuses of downloading thousands of songs in violation of copyright laws.

Sousa's fears were not fulfilled. The recording industry made more money for people like him than could ever have been reaped by traveling bands. There was new legislation to protect recordings under copyright laws and a new organization that Sousa helped found -- the American Society of Composers, Authors and Producers.

To this day, ASCAP -- and its counterpart BMI -- license the use of members' music, policing radio stations, stores playing background music, even municipalities' concerts, to assure that their members get paid by those who use their work.

The history of the music industry is a cycle of such tales. New technology has usually been met with resistance because it threatens the old way of doing things. Then it turns out the new technology offers an even better way to make money.

"With any technology, when something new comes along, `Oh, no!' is what always kicks in with the vested interests," says Thompson, author of the 2002 book The Soundscape of Modernity, which traces the development and impact of sound reproduction technologies.

That was true when radio arrived. The recording industry went into a slump and some prophesized doom. Why would anyone pay for a record when music could be heard for free on the radio?

"The initial shock was, `Oh, my God, we can't have this stuff going out over the air!'" says Robert D. Friedel, a historian of technology at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They saw this as a straightforward loss of potential revenue."

Ultimately, radio became the essential platform for promoting records -- first 45 rpm singles, then 33 1/3 rpm albums -- driving the boom in the recording industry for much of the past half-century.

Magnetic tape was also supposed to kill records -- you could just copy your friend's LP, why bother to buy? The industry persuaded Congress to give it a few cents from each blank cassette sold to compensate for such damages. But in a few years, those same companies were selling their music on cassettes and continuing to make plenty of money.

When digital technology first showed up in the form of digital audio tape, or DAT, the music industry launched an attack because theses tapes could be used to make perfect copies of recordings. Complicated attempts to produce duplication-proof recordings proved futile. The industry managed to ban the sale of DATs to consumers.

Then, a few years later, the industry jettisoned cassettes and vinyl LPs for it own version of digital technology -- compact discs -- and made even more money as people replaced their old albums with new CDs.

But CDs opened the digital door. Perfect sound replication was now available to virtually anyone. That had not been the case with magnetic tape, as there was a loss of fidelity -- not to mention no great album covers -- when you transferred a record to tape.

"When you look back at the DAT case, and then you realize how easy it is to copy a CD, it looks like the industry didn't see that one coming, considering all the effort they made to scotch the DAT when, in fact, from a user standpoint, copying a CD is actually faster and more universally exchangeable than DAT ever could have been," says Friedel

"One of the interesting things in the history of technology is the whole process of innovation and response," he says. "Further down the road, we often lose sight of the enormous level of uncertainty that surrounds the emergence of any technology."

Video precedent

Consider the arrival of video recording. The movie industry was horrified. Why go to movies and pay per person when you can sit home and watch them at any time, all for one price? Lawsuits were filed to derail the technology.

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