As noted here, the RIAA has issued 10 million takedown requests to Google in an attempt to close off paths to sites that facilitate music downloading. At the same time, a related phenomenon is fueling the fire of rightsholder outrage: Brand advertising that appears on download sites and generates revenue for those businesses.
These two aspects of the internet's ecosystem -- finding free music downloads through search engines, and ad-supported sites expediting illicit music acquisition -- represent deeply rooted challenges to media owners. At the same time, as with most challenges, there is a flip side of opportunity. The difference between capitalizing on an opportunity and being defeated by its challenge is the difference between getting in front of reality and falling behind it. The RIAA is regarded by many as the poster organization for denial of reality. A reversal of strategy and tactics might get big media owners in front of 21st century realities.
Call it Whac-a-Mole; call it herding an infinite number of cats; the RIAA has spent enormous effort taking action at all levels of the online realm. The organization has targeted and litigated against individuals, lobbied ISPs to police their user downloads and taken down P2P platforms. The escalation of requests to remove Google links indicates the RIAA's willingness to back up the campaign to the gateway at which some users find download sites. Like a copy of a mix tape, there is a second-generation facet to this exercise, as the sites which arise in a typical song search in Google are themselves search engines. You get the feeling the RIAA would institute a telepathic block of a person's mental Googling impulse if it could.
The futility of the RIAA's takedown toil is obvious. Go into Google right now, mindful that 10 million link removals have already been essayed, and search for a song download. In an incognito Chrome window (to remove personalization of results) I searched for "adele skyfall download." Nearly the entire first page linked to download sites. (I use the term "download sites," rather than "pirate sites," to mean websites which enable song searches and downloads, and which immunize themselves with published DMCA takedown policies.) There was an iTunes result in there. Also a SoundCloud post of a "Skyfall" remix that sampled liberally from the Adele track.
In a beautiful irony that illustrates the tangled complexity of the search / content / advertising matrix, one of the links clicked over to a Google-owned YouTube video. It was a link-bait vid in which the only graphic was another link to the download page. So Google received a second page view for the RIAA-despised search result. Doubling down on irony, the video contained a pre-roll trailer ad for the 20th Century Fox movie The Internship. Hollywood inserted a gainful promotion in the path to music piracy. Tripling the incongruity is the fact that The Internship is a comedy about working at Google.
Back on the search page, eight standard takedown disclosures were listed by Google. They interestingly referred to (but did not link to) ChillingEffects.org, a legal resource site mainly for individuals who have received cease-and-desist letters.
The fruitlessness of using the formal takedown process to snip off search links to song download pages as fast as Google's indexing spider produces them is self-evident. New songs are released every day. Most P2P search engines reveal dozens or hundreds of distinct download URLs for a single song of any popularity. When I constrained my search to just one of the download sites that appeared on the original page of results, I received 689 links to the Adele song at that site. Trying to choke off illicit downloading at the search engine discovery point is like strangling water with a net.
Ineffectuality can be theoretically justified by having law on your side. Unauthorized downloading does land on the foul side of copyright law, and that powers the righteous stance of the RIAA's promotional material.
There is not (yet) a legal aspect to the issue of major brands advertising on music download sites. The argument against them derives from political correctness more than anything -- an insurance company's banner ad on a download site is perceived as if the company were the corporate sponsor of a pirate frigate in the Caribbean. The operational reality is that online ad buying is largely automated, and agencies often purchase demographics or usage patterns, not explicit site inventory. So-called premium advertising is site-specific. Most of the rest is algorithmic.
In the perspective of Big Content, the main concern is that DMCA-protected websites are making money by enabling copyright theft. The sensitivity to who advertises on those sites (where many of the ads are porn-related) is a matter of optics.
But here's a thought. Why don't the music labels advertise intensely on music download sites? I know the answers, and the sputtering scorn that the idea would elicit in some offices. But the challenge of any disruption is getting in front of change. Doing so is terribly difficult when the disruption alters marketplace configuration as much as digital music. But for goodness' sake, the genie got out of the bottle in 1997 when Justin Frankel released Winamp. That's 15 years of resisting the obvious, and incalculable loss of opportunity.
One of the golden principles of enterprise is this: Understand your potential customers, and be where they are.
The label industry has shrunk, but still does substantial business thanks to persistent old-school consumer habits. A report from the NPD Group (November 2011) indicates that about half of music-spending is still driven by AM / FM radio as the main discovery engine, while 34 percent of purchases occur in a consumer group likely to choose CDs. Older demographics account for 20 percent of per capita spending, mostly on CDs, and with little interest in adventurous music discovery. Open-minded discovery and non-CD buying are newer, younger consumer characteristics. So the label industry is hanging on to its older customers, and battling its younger ones with alienating tactics derived from principles that potential future users don't even understand. Conversion is impossible on this path. Business erosion will get worse.
One of the golden principles of enterprise is this: Understand your potential customers, and be where they are. On that basis, label advertising on gray-area music download sites is a no-brainer. The defeatist battle cry of the music industry for over a decade has been, "You can't compete with free." Every purchase of bottled water exposes that lie. Technology companies have grabbed the opportunity where music companies have failed, developing new music discovery environments (e.g., Spotify) and music retail experiences (e.g., iTunes) that have enriched tech developers and partially saved labels.
Big Music has love / hate for tech, which has done the inventing and banked the rewards. (Independent musicians have similar mixed feelings, by the way.) Fair enough, but where is the tech R&D in the labels? Big Music, with its still-mighty resources, is where Big New Products should be coming from. There is little to advertise, on any site, if your product adds almost no value to free products. As long as that is the case, it is not "pirate sites" which will abrade the label business, but white-hat tech sites that continue adding value and solving problems for modern consumers. This forecast is informed by studies that have indicated users of file-sharing sites buy more music than those who don't.
I don't know what the next great music-delivery product is. There is a cynical and withering attitude in music that if you don't have the answer you shouldn't make the complaint. But foreknowledge is an illusion. Google doesn't know whether Glass will succeed. BlackBerry doesn't know about the Z10. Microsoft is gambling on the Windows 8 ecosystem. Huge investments, each. Tech companies characteristically do not execute success; they execute daring. Speculation is a key attribute and fount of invention. In grim contrast, the desultory music industry is sullen and defensive, clinging to increasingly irrelevant values of gatekeeping and analog marketing, venturing exhaustedly to reverse the transformation of content into frictionless digital bits by tying off every rivulet.
Labels: Get adventurous and re-organize your resources. Invent or adopt the next music product category. The tech companies most friendly to you are eating your lunch even as they feed you scraps. Steal back their daring. Add value like crazy. Solve consumer problems, don't add to them. Then advertise your stuff where your future customers live rather than trying to trip them on their path there. If you can't beat 'em, get ahead of 'em.
And remember that with every passing month the market cares a little less what happens to you.
Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. He belongs to an ageless music-consumption demographic.