CDs Say ‘Goodbye,’ Kanye West Says ‘Hello’

When the full discography of the Beatles was released on iTunes recently, I was prompted to remember the last time that I bought a music CD. I couldn’t. Nor could I remember, for that matter, the last time I illegally downloaded music. All the new music that I want to listen to is available freely and legally on the Internet via links on blogs and websites such as elbo.ws, The Hype Machine, and Pitchfork. Innovative music artists have broken free of the old economic model of only marketing CDs through concerts, and by embracing the Internet, they have increased their fan base.

Yet many artists, especially those whose business plans are pioneered by record-label executives, have not. And neither has our government’s policy regarding the distribution and reuse of music. According to recent figures, total revenue from U.S. music sales and licensing dived to $6.3 billion in 2009 from $14.6 billion in 1999 . Traditional notions of business in the music industry no longer work. Artists and record labels must recognize that how, when, and where consumers listen to music has changed from 10 years ago. These artists and record labels should look to the vibrancy of the Internet music scene as an example of how to achieve economic success. The government has to change its policies regarding the redistribution of music and enforcement of copyright law, too. After all, the new economic paradigm is only unfair to those who do not put in the effort to adapt to it.

The behavior of consumers in the music industry has irrevocably changed from when I was in the third grade. My hip and young homeroom teacher once asked each of us to bring in a CD with our current favorite pop song on it (I brought in Ricky Martin’s Greatest Hits—don’t ask, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” is catchy, OK?) so that she could create a compilation for the class. This is when “ripping” and “burning” CDs still had the vibe of a new and sexy technological dark art. If she were doing the same thing today, she would probably ask us to email her our favorite song and then post a downloadable mix in a zip file on the school server rather than burn a CD for each student. Times have changed.

And Kanye West knows this. That is why he posted every single song on his newly released album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” to be downloaded for free in the months and weeks before the actual album was released. That’s also why he created a short film, entitled “Runaway,” that includes music from the new album and posted it to YouTube. And why he went to the headquarters of Facebook and Twitter in late July and performed live previews of songs on his albums for the employees there—so that they could videotape them and spread them virally on the Internet.

It’s not just Kanye. Statistics show that people will buy music if they hear it first and like it. Radiohead took a leap of faith three years ago with their album, “In Rainbows.” They released it on the Internet for whatever price people were willing to pay, including nothing. It ended up topping the charts in the U.S. and U.K. Newer artists who meddle in remixing, including Chiddy Bang and Girl Talk, have released copious amounts of their music, if not all of it, for freely available download on the Internet. As a result, they have achieved critical and commercial success.

The new album from Girl Talk (a.k.a. Greg Gillis), “All Day,” is made up of 372 overlapping samples of other musical artists’ work. He has not licensed these samples, most of which are less than10 seconds long, from their creators. Yes, those artists did come up with the tiny bits of music he peruses, and copyright should protect creative works of art. But out of the infinite possibilities of recombining their music, Gillis came up with the album “All Day.” Our current copyright laws criminalize Gillis for the creation of this album and as such demean his creation as not artwork. Any listener knows that this is an unjust classification.

The behavior of individuals has driven the transition to the new way that things are done in the world of music. People download music legally from their favorite websites, buy what they like off of iTunes, put it on their iPods, and go about their lives. Meanwhile, stacks of CDs grow dusty in the basements of their homes. The bank accounts of record labels grow empty and the courts fill up with lawsuits criminalizing a new generation of artists. It’s time for these institutions to catch up with the times.

Nikhil R. Mulani ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Pennypacker Hall.

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