The (legal) online advantage

It’s no surprise the Recording Industry Association of America filed 10 lawsuits against users on Kent State’s network for illegally downloading music. After all, this university ranks 17th on the RIAA’s list of the worst college offenders in the country.

Although many of us are guilty of it, music downloading can be, believe it or not, illegal. But what the RIAA and those crusading across the country against every college student with LimeWire or BitTorrent fail to realize is how powerful a tool the Internet is.

When students want to hear something new, the Internet is the first place they turn. They don’t go to MTV. They don’t go to VH1. They (hopefully) don’t go to “American Idol.” And they most definitely don’t turn to the radio.

Embracing the Internet has done wonderful things for some artists. MP3 technology has made it easier for artists to get their music heard and has given unsigned bands a way to get their proverbial foot in the door.

Consider this: A few years ago, Reprise Records rejected Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for being unmarketable. Wilco, which had been putting out records since 1994, decided to part with the label. Guess what the band did? It put its album on the Internet, even after pirated versions of the album circulated around. Fans ate up the album, and it became one of the band’s most successful and critically acclaimed works.

Similarly, in late 2004, singer Fiona Apple’s record label rejected her album Extraordinary Machine. The album started to circulate around the Internet, and the campaign popped up, encouraging hundreds of Fiona fans to send apples to the Sony/Epic record label in protest of the album’s hold. Eventually, the album was released, and it peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard 200.

These are only two examples of the power of the Internet working for musicians from a grassroots level, and it’s time for the RIAA to embrace this technology. When students want to hear something new or are thinking about buying a CD, many turn to the Internet to download a few tracks. Lawsuits or not, students are going to continue to download music – but it’s the RIAA’s choice whether they want the downloading to be done in a legal manner.

Instead of pooling its resources to sue college students, the RIAA should encourage record labels and musicians to start using the Internet to spread their music, encouraging artists to offer a portion of their albums on their Web sites for MP3 download or at least some form of streaming audio for free.

If the RIAA really wants to stop illegal downloading, it can keep dreaming. The Internet and the MP3 are here to stay. Why not use them to the industry’s advantage?

The above editorial is the consensus of the Summer Kent Stater editorial board.