The record business is booming

The BPI’s latest press release has just landed on my desk, and the news is good: despite rampant downloading (which so far, the BPI hasn’t used as grounds to sue anyone), sales are up, up, up! UK sales were up 4% on last year, with album sales up 3.7%, the singles market showing the first increase in five years and the market for music DVD growing rapidly. The BPI also notes that legal downloads have hit 2 million so far this year.

Hear, hear

Simon B of No Rock’N’Roll Fun (the best music blogger bar none) thinks there’s something very wrong with the way the RIAA is forcing people to pay ridiculous sums to settle lawsuits resulting from MP3 downloading; as he points out:

people are being bounced into settling for absurd figures because they’re scared. [One person] had to take out a second mortgage to keep the RIAA happy – a second mortgage to pay for a few hundred downloads; a second mortgage to pay for a few hundred bucks worth of recordings. All being done, claim the RIAA, in the name of the artists. But which artists really want people to have to put their homes at risk? Is this what David Cassidy wants? Or Axl Rose? Is Moby happy with this?

This is something covered in Lawrence Lessig’s book, which I mentioned a few days ago. Because US copyright law means that you can be fined up to $150,000 per infringement – so ten trips to Kazaa could leave you liable for fines of up to $1.5 million – anyone targeted by the record industry is faced with Hobson’s Choice. If you fight and lose, you could end up being fined hundreds of thousands of dollars; if you fight and win, you’ll still face thousands of dollars in legal fees. As a result, the RIAA can demand sums of $3,000, $5,000, $10,000 from the people it accuses of file sharing, safe in the knowledge that any sensible person would pay up.

So far, the RIAA has targeted some 3,935 people. As Simon B concludes: “Punishing copyright violation is one thing, but wrecking people’s lives over a handfull of songs? It’s going too far.”

Dear Eskiimo

I don’t normally post plugs for bands, but I’ll make an exception for Dear Eskiimo. They’re a Manchester band who do swaggering, lurchy pop music with angelic girl vocals; I’ve been listening to their audio samples and jumping around the office like a loon.

Biting Apple

In Wired magazine’s Cult of Mac blog, Leander Kahney takes a swipe at a Business Week article that does the unthinkable: it criticises Apple and in particular, suggests that Macs are too expensive. Kahney writes:

Really, it’s the same old bollocks and clearly demonstrates Salkever [the BW writer] has no understanding of Apple whatsoever.

To be fair, some of the article is misguided: when Salkever suggests that Apple should emphasise the relatively virus-free world of the Mac, he’s forgetting that such marketing would be a giant red rag to the virus writing community. However, Kahney’s ire is aroused by the suggestion that Macs are too expensive compared to PCs, and it’s clear that Kahney doesn’t want to see “trashy cheapo machines”. I don’t either, but anyone who thinks Macs are competitively priced is perhaps a little too close to Steve Jobs’ legendary Reality Distortion Field.

When it was released in 1998, the original iMac cost USD $1,299 (roughly the same as a mid-range PC) and it quickly became America’s best-selling computer. Apple dropped the price in early 1999 (to $1,199) and started increasing the specification and dropping prices further; by 2000, the 350MHz iMac was $799 and the following year, the same money would get you a 600MHz iMac – which was anything but a “trashy, cheapo machine”.

Then in 2002, Apple introduced the flat panel iMac – and the cost of an entry-level iMac soared from $799 to $1,299, while PC prices continued to plummet. In one fell swoop the iMac went from being a computer for everybody to a fetish object for the polo-neck brigade, and it stayed that way; when it was finally canned this summer, the cheapest iMac was still $1,299.

Compare that to the iPod: in 2001, the cheapest iPod was $399, while today’s entry level model is $299 (and the iPod Mini is cheaper still at $249). With the iPod Apple hasn’t just boosted the specification (although of course it has: the original iPod range started with just 5GB of storage) but it has also cut its prices by 25%, and introduced an even cheaper model to tempt more people into the iPod family.

There are strong similarities between the original iMac and the iPod; both are/were great products with brilliant marketing, gorgeous design and that all-important “cool factor” that makes Apple kit so compelling. However, both the original iMac and the iPod also fell in price as their specifications improved, whereas the anglepoise iMac didn’t. The first iMac was the best-selling computer in America, whereas its successor wasn’t even the best-selling xMac in the Apple Store. That honour goes to the ageing, education-oriented eMac which, if rumour sites can be believed, was outselling the anglepoise iMac by four to one at the beginning of this year.

Kahney writes:

Though not the cheapest, Apple’s machines are cheap. Seven years ago, a stick of laptop RAM cost $1,300. You can get a fabulous iBook for less these days.

Indeed. Four years ago, a basic iBook was $1,599 and a basic iMac $799; today, the iBook is 30% cheaper while the price of the iMac has nearly doubled. What’s wrong with that picture?

update: 24 august

Behold the power of MacSurfer! Within about 12 hours of posting this entry, MacSurfer had referred around 700 people to this page; as you’ll see from the comments, most of them disagree with me.

The two points that are coming up again and again are that I’m not comparing like for like, so a entry level PC is a much poorer proposition than an entry level Mac; and that I’m being unfair on the eMac. To take the second point first, I think it’s a fair point but I still disagree: to my mind the eMac sits outside the main Apple product lines, which are iBook/iMac for consumers, and PowerBook/Power Mac for professionals. The eMac was never intended to be part of that range, and when it initially launched it wasn’t available to ordinary customers at all; after about a month of howls from the Mac community, the eMac was made available to everyone and it became a big success. However, from the perspective of potential switchers I speak to, the eMac doesn’t appear on their radar at all (and it’s a rare sight outside Apple Centres; in most computer shops round these parts you’ll see iBooks and iMacs, but not eMacs); when they’re considering switching to a Mac it’s the iMac they think of before buying another Dell instead. As I’ve said in the comments section that’s entirely anecdotal evidence, but that’s good enough for me :-)

The other point, like for like comparison, is perfectly fair: as one poster has pointed out, if you compare the specs of various PCs against various eMacs and iMacs, you do get more Mac for your money. Again, though, I’ll play devil’s advocate: firewire, general component quality, zero latency on soundcards etc etc etc are important to more experienced computer users, but do they matter to the mum and dad who are looking for a decent machine for their kid who’s off to university, or someone who wants a cool computer for getting on the internet, doesn’t really know much about the technical stuff and doesn’t want to spend too much?

It’s been an interesting debate so far and I’m sure it’ll continue; I’m on deadline for the next few days so I’ll probably be pretty quiet, but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the feedback…

When subtitlers attack

A wonderful wee story in the Diary section of today’s [Glasgow] Herald:

TOILING on an exercise bike in a Glasgow city-centre gym on Friday morning, Bob Pilley was idly watching the sub-titled version of ITV news on various telly monitors. Bob has often wondered whether these sub-titles are transcribed live by frenetic, adrenalin-fuelled squads of 16-year-olds typing ferociously as the news is being broadcast. His suspicions were partially confirmed at 7.10am when, for several minutes, the subtitle read: “We’ve had a fight. We will be back in a minute.”

Lighting up the Net

Nanotechnology researchers are working on a technology that could dramatically increase the speed of the internet. By manipulating carbon atoms it may be possible to replace electronic switches with optical ones, leading to an ultra-fast internet powered not by electricity, but light. National Geographic explains.

Whack-a-mole

The news that the RIAA has failed in its legal action against Morpheus and Grokster is a pleasant surprise, because it’s a rare example of a judge being sensible. Of course, the RIAA will appeal, and there’s the spectre of the rather scary US INDUCE act which, if implemented, means that manufacturers of iPods, CD burners and other useful objects could be sued for contributing to piracy.

The case against Morpheus and Grokster is just the latest instalment in a rather tiresome game of whack-a-mole that’s been running since 1999, when Napster first appeared on the horizon, and it won’t be the last: if the RIAA manages to get Grokster and Morpheus shut down, there’s still Kazaa, Limewire and many, many others. And then there are the FTP sites, the Russian sites such as Allofmp3.com, the private file sharing that occurs via instant messaging, and so on ad nauseam.

For years the record industry has refused to enter into licensing talks with P2P networks, and P2P file sharing has continued to flourish; using legal measures to get rid of the problem hasn’t worked since 1999, and it won’t work in the future. The answer seems pretty obvious: rather than lobbying for new and daft laws, the record industry in various countries should be lobbying for some sort of compulsory licence scheme such as the ones affecting public performance of music, radio broadcasting, webcasting and so on.

A compulsory licence might work like this: a P2P network provider must either pay the record industry a licence, or block any unauthorised content; if it fails to pay and to block, there’s no legal grey area and the company can be sued silly. Or the onus might be put on ISPs: pay a licence fee or block access to P2P. In both cases the cost of the licence would be passed on to the consumer, who might pay an extra couple of quid for broadband in exchange for free music; ISPs who don’t want to pay the licence could simply block the P2P ports and run the risk of customers heading for firms that do pay for music licences.

There’s nothing particularly new or exciting about such things. Venues and pubs where music is played need to have a licence from the Performing Right Society; when radio stations play music, they have to pay royalties to the PRS. If I record cover versions on CD I have to pay a royalty to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society, and so on. The system’s there, it works, and it could be expanded to cover P2P networks or ISPs relatively easily.

By implementing such compulsory licences the record industry would get money, artists would get paid, consumers could continue to use P2P services and any firm who refused to pay the licence could be sued into the middle of next week. The alternative – a continuation of whack-a-mole, with consumers downloading for free, nobody getting paid and the record companies chasing after network after network, site after site – will just prolong a situation that’s bad for technology firms, bad for the record industry and bad for artists.