Why the Music Industry Can’t Afford to Have Another Radio

Bill Thompson’s piece on the BBC earlier this week on the BPI’s ‘education programme’ with Virgin Media has invoked the wrath of the BPI who put out a counter statement. What I find really interesting are the very different implications of file-sharing for TV broadcasters versus record labels.

A wave of ambitious TV broadcaster online video strategies are fighting file sharing head-on by giving prime content away as soon as programmes have been broadcast via iPlayer, 4OD, ITV.Com, SkyPlayer, Hulu, ABC.com etc. The thinking being, if you can watch it so soon online there, why would you bother with Bit Torrent? As such, these TV broadcasters are essentially using the Internet in the same way the music industry uses radio i.e. somewhere between discovery, promotion and consumption. But the music industry already has its radio and it intends for the Internet to become a core distribution channel, not a promotional channel. The music industry cannot afford the Internet to become another radio.

Whether it is sustainable to have legitimate TV content online being free but legitimate music paid is a decent question, and there is an argument that the current online video offerings may be further weak already limited consumer willingness to pay for any content online. Also there are fundamental differences in consumption between TV and music content that enable very different technological solutions. Giving away streaming (and thus temporary) copies of TV shows seriously limits the need to download to view shows from a P-to-P network. But the same model doesn’t work for music, because the majority of music listeners like to listen to the majority of their music many times. The majority of TV viewers like to watch the majority of their TV just the once. If a record label streamed all of their new singles online for a week after release, many file sharers would still want to download them from a P2P network and put them on their iPods or burn onto CD.

The BPI and Virgin are in something of a no-win situation. If they’d put something more substantial in place (such as a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ policy) they’d have been accused of using draconian powers. Thompson already states “The spaces within which we can live unobserved are constantly diminishing” (though in reality that process started long ago – ever heard of Menwith Hill?). The BPI and Virgin have arrived at a well meaning compromise that may lack enough teeth to achieve its goals and yet still finds itself subject to claims about attacks on freedom.