Moses Supposes: Why we steal music

Moses Avalon is one of the nation’s leading music-business consultants and artists’-rights advocates and is the author of a top-selling music business reference, Confessions of a Record Producer. More of his articles can be found at

You don’t have to scratch your head too much to recall that Jim Carrey or [Arnold] Schwarzenegger got about $25 million to perform in their movies, or to remember the $280 million that it cost to make Titanic. I’d like you to ask yourself a question: why in the hell do you know these facts? They are not important to your day-to-day survival, yet they are part of common pop-culture knowledge.

Now ask yourself this: how much did Eminem’s last four albums cost? What about how much it cost to market and promote U2’s integrations into the iPod? What? No answer? The reason you have no idea is because whenever you learn how much an actor is getting paid, it’s not a fact that was uncovered by hard-nosed investigative journalism. It’s in a press release. The film industry wants everyone to know that it’s costing them a truckload of cash to entertain you, the public.

Over the last 60 years, while the movie industry has been investing millions a year in educating us about their costs, the record companies have not invested dime-one on this area. They have not taught us music’s cash value.

You probably don’t even realize it, but one important reason you don’t feel easily comfortable sneaking into a blockbuster movie is because subconsciously you figure, “It’s only nine bucks, what the heck, they spent $100 million to make it.”

When have you heard that Michael Jackson’s History video cost almost $2,000,000, or that Mariah Carey’s second record company paid her close to $29,000,000 to not deliver the remaining four albums of her contract and leave the label? Did you hear that a 50-piece orchestra was hired for $20,000 a day for an artist who is a known prima donna, instead of using a synthesizer for about $1,500? Do you think that hiring an orchestra helped sell more records than the synth? No, but the record companies spend gobs of cash on developing new artists and keeping old ones in the public eye. They just don’t advertise it. They don’t educate the public about their woes. Instead, they produce music videos about the high lifestyle the artists enjoy, and they give away the music for free in various venues such as radio and TV, hoping we’ll get hooked on their new prodigy. It’s the same business model used by drug dealers.

So when a technology comes along that allows anyone with a computer to pilfer a record company’s inventory, who would think twice about using it? Music already feels free, and many feel as though they have a right to it.


It is a law of commerce: you cannot sell something if there is no perceived value in it. You simply can’t. Suing people who steal music, as the RIAA did from 2003-2008, is not really educating the public. It scares them a little, and perhaps this was necessary, but the conceptual effect is probably no different than TV companies suing viewers for making a tape (or DVD) of a movie shown on the air, and then lending it to a friend who can’t afford their own TiVo.

I concede, the analogy is not a parallel one in terms of the legal merits, but to the legally unsophisticated public, it feels the same. They walk away thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m not stealing. You already give this to me for free. It was free when I heard it at the mall and on the radio and on my MTV. I’m just ripping it and sharing my tastes with friends.”

Of course, from a copyright perceptive, this is ridiculous. Copyrights were designed to give authors almost absolute authority and monopoly over the use of their work — for a limited time. Regardless, record companies simply cannot get people to voluntarily abide by the law at this late date in the game. The law itself is too complex.

So how do they reverse this? How do they get people to see the monetary value of music when they’ve spent 60 years getting you to believe that you are entitled to it for free? They could try to reeducate the public. This would probably take another 15 years, if they start today, assuming there were no obstacles. And there are many. ISPs spending millions to “educate” the public that music should be free is a large wave pushing back on the minuscule efforts that the RIAA spends on winning hearts and minds.

Should they have thought about this years back when Internet companies approached them with new business models? Maybe. The tech-biased press likes to make the public think that record companies shut their doors to Internet possibilities. But what if they had no choice but to say “no” to them? What if Internet companies were bent on stealing their music no matter what? Would we learn about that truth given the way the media portrays the music business?

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