We Hate You, Buy Our Stuff

By Mark Schultz

Treating your customers well is always a good idea. Treating your customers well is a very good idea if they don’t really need your product. Finally, treating them well is absolutely essential if they don’t need your product, but can choose to get it anyway without paying you. The music industry is in the latter position, but just doesn’t seem to care.

A case in point is the burgeoning crusade of music publishers against lyrics web sites. For a long time, lyrics sites have provided a nice little service for music fans and musicians looking for lyrics. They are incomplete, often inaccurate, and plagued by popups. Nevertheless, they serve a demand that the music industry has failed to meet. I easily can imagine that a music industry lyrics site could provide consumers with a superior experience while providing ad revenue to publishers and songwriters. Unfortunately, rather than providing a superior alternative, the music industry is starting its fight with lawsuits. It’s the filesharing story all over again.

As if this weren’t deja vu enough, the legal campaign is accompanied by obnoxious, overblown rhetoric. It must be a badge of honor for entertainment industry trade association executives to become known for extreme statements. Lauren Keiser is president of the Music Publisher’s Association. Apparently, he hopes to make “Lauren Keiser” and “MPA” terms of obloquy and horror among bloggers and Free Culture types just like “Hillary Rosen,” “RIAA,” “Jack Valenti,” and “MPAA.” Well, why not? Rosen and Valenti have both retired, so the position of Public Domain Enemy Number One is vacant. As the BBC reports, Keiser makes his case as follows:

MPA president Lauren Keiser said he wanted site owners to be jailed.

He said unlicensed guitar tabs and song scores were widely available on the internet but were “completely illegal”.

Mr. Keiser said he did not just want to shut websites and impose fines, saying if authorities can “throw in some jail time I think we’ll be a little more effective.”

Jail? Does he know something we don’t? Are lyrics sites fronts for terrorist activities? Sarcasm aside, I’m sure Keiser as an industry insider knows some things we don’t about lyrics sites and certainly has stronger feelings than most. He should keep those differences in perspective in mind. Most people don’t get where he’s coming from. He sounds a little unhinged, which is a bad thing for one of the public faces of the music industry. Unhinged is a fine thing for a political talk radio show host, but should it be part of the job description of a trade industry executive? Unfortunately, it probably kind of is part of his job. The industry pays his salary, they’re worried, so he needs to show them he is fighting for them.

The music industry would do well to consider whether such actions and rhetoric really serve its interests. In a forthcoming article to be published in the Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Fear and Norms and Rock & Roll: What Jambands Can Teach Us about Persuading People to Obey Copyright Law, I contend that the music industry could partly alleviate its infringement problem by treating music fans better. While this conclusion may sound a bit pie in the sky, it is based on social science research: When people are treated well, they reciprocate by cooperating and playing by the rules. When people are treated poorly, they reciprocate by punishing those who treat them badly. Now that compliance with copyright is largely voluntary, the music industry needs to treat its fans well. Build good relationships, and people are less likely to infringe. Anger fans, and people will shrug off the illegality of unauthorized filesharing.

The music industry would have been better off if it had led with something like iTunes and then followed with suits against illegitimate competitors. At first, it may have seemed to be suicidal to compete with free, albeit illegal services. The industry’s attitude was understandable: We need to lock up our content and eliminate the illegal competitors. Only then can we really succeed online. Luckily for them, Steve Jobs saw things differently. He explained the iTunes strategy in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview:

Our position, from the beginning, was that 80% of the people stealing music online don’t really want to be thieves. But that it is such a compelling way to get music: It’s instant gratification. You don’t have to go to the record store; the music’s already digitized, so you don’t have to rip the CD. It’s so compelling that people are willing to become thieves to do it. And to tell them that they should stop being thieves — without a legal alternative, that offers those same benefits — rings hollow. We said: We don’t see how you convince people to stop being thieves, unless you can offer them a carrot — not just a stick. And the carrot is: We’re gonna offer you a better experience … and it’s only gonna cost you a dollar a song.

Since then, iTunes has produced over a billion legal downloads. While iTunes has not eliminated illegal filesharing, it has certainly proven that a lot of people are willing to pay for a legal service even when free illegal alternatives exist. People are willing to cooperate, but gaining that cooperation requires decent treatment. Give people a legal alternative that is convenient and reasonable. Put aside the inflamed rhetoric and technological lockdowns, and focus on the positive.

As the cliché goes, hindsight is 20-20. The success of iTunes was not necessarily obvious. But now that it has occurred, it would be foolish not to draw some lessons. Before the music industry launches its new battle against lyrics sites by following the old script from its filesharing battle, it ought to consider a more reasonable approach. Start by providing a legal alternative–give people a nice, comprehensive, accurate site that shows up at the top of the search engines. If they do that, they likely will have solved a lot of their problem before they even start to worry about enforcement (sans the apocalyptic rhetoric and calls for jail time).