Those of you of a certain age probably remember the mixtape. If you’re younger than me you probably only had CDs, and if you’re older chances are you didn’t have the MC – the micro-cassette. It’s what we now call tape, but of course it’s a small version of those cool reel-to-reel systems that were such a difficult mess to use.
Like a lot of boys back in the late 70s and early 80s, I slaved away over my cassette deck (hooked up via my amplifier to my turntable) and cranked out carefully composed mixtapes. They served as every conceivable soundtrack – cool tracks to listen to while getting dressed for a “night” out on the town, angry or sad music for general teenage angst, and of course a series of loving tracks supposed to convince various girls that I’m tough, sensitive, cool, clever, and good-looking all at the same time. Sometimes these particular mixtapes were handed to the adored girl in question, but just as often they simply stayed in my Walkman… Either because I liked the tape too much, or the girl was no longer interesting to me, or because I expected rejection anyway, so why bother give up a tape that took me hours to compile.
Of course, in the internet age, everything is different.
You could dump a bunch of MP3 files on to a CD-ROM, but that is sooo… nineties.
No, nowadays you can go to any number of Mixtape sites, upload your songs, and send the result as a link to the girl in question. Then she can listen to it anywhere, including streaming it off her iPhone. Now that’s good technology! I think I would have handed over a lot more mixes would it have been as easy as clicking Send to get the mix into her hands.
These sites, like Muxtape for instance, are pretty much illegal of course – you’re using someone else’s Intellectual Property to create content without compensating the various parties that own and control it – the musicians, the record label, and the publisher.
And of course, the RIAA shut it down fast.
Who is the RIAA? The record labels and music publishers are represented in the US by the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America. They’re a lobbying group that is the de facto representative of the world’s music industry. These people – and more importantly, the companies they represent – have been unable to come up with a single new way of earning money in the internet age. Instead, they have focused all their energy on shutting down anything that doesn’t lead to CD sales. Apple was too big for them, or they’d try to shut down iTunes as well.
Believe me, I am the great defender of Intellectual Property rights. I’ve owned a record label, I own film rights, and I’ve built a software company. I know all the arguments surrounding content distribution. But shutting down Muxtape? The RIAA already has the reputation of a thick-skulled mob enforcer.
Of course, a mixtape was always “illegal”, even 30 years ago the average Joe was not allowed to redistribute music without consent. We all did it anyway, because the law was unenforcable. No one was making any money off these tapes.
The music industry needs to figure out a new definition for “fair usage”. There has always been a disconnect between the rights of the creator and the owner. Theoretically, I’m not even allowed to play a song at a party without prior consent from the publisher.
As Navneet at Scrawled in Wax writes:
This question – of how copyright either enables or restricts cultural expression – is both ubiquitous and tricky. After all, in some sense ‘copyright versus culture’ is a false dichotomy: the ideas that underpin copyright law – ownership, private property, accreditation and individualism – are cultural linchpins as much as they are legal ones. But Muxtape’s intuitiveness, the simple fact that it ‘just works’ in both a technical and a cultural sense, renders the question in a somewhat different light. Though the disjunct between content providers and users is clear to anyone who has ever heard of DRM, to what extent does Muxtape highlight the contradictory, even antagonistic relationship between intellectual property laws and what people actually want to do with media and art?
The music industry would be better served by letting sites like Muxtape flourish, and to study how their customers use music. Then it will be easier for them to weave a revenue model into these new technologies, rather than trying to emulate a pre-existing ways of doing business.