Losing sales? Customers leaving in droves? Just sue!

Wrong answer. While the Recording Industry Association of America is blaming file sharing for sinking sales, it might want to look at its own efforts to sell music. Certainly, if people are stealing music in droves rather than buying it, the industry must be making some large mistakes.

First off, the lawsuit tactic alienates customers while driving others to new methods of theft. The RIAA have little means to control other new file-sharing methods. OurTunes is cited in RIAA reports as a new threat. This is because it is an intra-network program. OurTunes can only be accessed by those in a local network. As such, unless your housefellow is actually being contracted by the RIAA, there are no prying eyes. Secondly, options like SendShare allow large groups of people to share songs, albums and box sets with anyone who has the correct link. Then there's the BitTorrent site Pirate Bay, which has survived numerous attempts to shut down its massive database of links to BitTorrent files. Limewire users may be scared off by lawsuits, but anyone with enough patience to surf the web for more than 15 minutes can find a quick loophole out of the recording industry's arms.

Why are these people abandoning the market? Simply put, the industry has failed the consumer in every way — in quality, distribution and access. The industry has become so consumed with increasing profits that the best method of doing that — putting out good music at a reasonable price — has become a lost art.

File sharing doesn't destroy the record industry; it just applies "survival of the fittest" to albums and singles. Good music is downloaded and bought; bad music is downloaded and dumped. In 2000, Radiohead's album Kid A leaked three months prior to its official release. Experts predicted poor album sales with the leak and no singles. It did exactly the opposite. Radiohead became the first British band in three years to top the U.S. album charts. A more recent example is Arcade Fire. Their first album, Funeral, peaked at No. 135 on the U.S. album charts. When their latest album leaked nearly two months before its release date, disaster was predicted again when marketing plans had to be rushed. It debuted two weeks ago at No. 2. People still buy albums, but only the ones they know are good. File sharing encouraged those sales.

The record industry refuses to raise standards of quality in artistry because they're focused on profitable marketing. The Arctic Monkeys may have been right when they said, "There's only music so that there's new ringtones." The industry is concerned with marketing music in ways that sell, which is fine. They are corporations, after all. However, that doesn't mean cultivating artists, but instead shoving flavor-of-the-month artists into whatever commercial niche fits.

The only problem is how it sells. Catchy may sell quickly and easily, but it doesn't have a long-lasting effect. It's easy to get new artists to the top of charts, but it's much harder to keep them there. Quality music stays at the top — Dark Side of the Moon not only spent nearly 1,500 weeks on the Billboard 200, it still sells around 9,600 copies a week in the United States.

Quality music exists, but so does mediocre music. Repetitive, lackluster music still sells — ask Nickelback — but the overall market suffers because of it. So what should they do?

First off, dump terrestrial radio. Considering Sony-BMG got caught paying radio stations to get Audioslave and Bow Wow on the air, radio can't be trusted to play what is demanded. If Clear Channel blankets a radio station with 40 songs all day, every day, some songs are bound to stick. However, it provides options far too narrow for those with Internet or satellite radio. For all intents and purposes, FM radio was the industry's workhorse. By working it the same way in a thicker soil, they've just about killed it. Introduce new and innovative artists through the outlet or bury the horse.

Second, give in to the digital music formats. If the industry is afraid of a complete switch leading to more file sharing, then they should have made it impossible to rip CDs to a computer — something they now claim is copyright infringement. The RIAA is relying on a dying format that is actually easier to share than legally downloaded music, which is encrypted to limit multiple users. The industry needs to switch to digital formats completely, before the death of CDs takes them down as well. Record executives have the opportunity to lead the charge and stop the bleeding, but only if they change paths and dive headlong.

The RIAA lawsuits are the sign of an industry holding on to the old way of doing business. The game has changed, and the players have to switch strategies. Otherwise, consumers and artists will use their new tools — which provide cheaper advertising, recording and distribution — to make music without the old guard.

Jason Smathers ([email protected]) is a junior majoring in history and journalism.